Ahoy: environmental stewardship at sea?


When the idea of going on a cruise for spring break came up on the radar, I had my doubts. Yes, it seemed like a luxurious, relaxing trip aboard the Freedom of the Seas, but the environmental implications destroyed the potential ambiance. The environmental footprint extends past the actual cruise, to include travel by passengers to arrive to port, the excursions at each destination, and the construction of the ships. Is there even such a thing as a sustainable cruise?

Impressive, powerful and constructed with a sleek design, cruise ships don’t look like they would be a major source of ocean pollution, or contribute to waste streams and air pollution. Cruise ships are exempt from the United States’ preeminent water pollution control law: the Clean Water Act. Although there are existing international laws and regulations, cruise ships can still contribute thousands of tons of waste and gallons of pollutants.  According to the international ocean conservation organization Oceana, each day a cruise ship generates as much as:

  • 30,000 gallons of sewage
  • 255,000 gallons of grey water (dirty water from showers, sinks, laundry, etc.)
  • exhaust emissions equivalent to 12,000 cars!

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that a 3,000-person cruise ship can generate up to 50 swimming pools full of waste-water each week. The sewage produced on board is allowed to be dumped anywhere in the ocean, if at least three miles from shore. Friends of the Earth (FoE) have produced a cruise ship report card that compares the environmental footprint of 16 major cruise lines. Grades are assigned to four main categories: sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance and transparency.

The cruise line we traveled with was Royal,and although they had a less than ideal score, it was encouraging to see that major strides towards sustainability were being taken once on board the ship.

Royal Caribbean

On the website, their environmental initiatives are clearly highlighted. Since 1992, the company has continually enhanced their Save the Waves program. It is clear they are proud of their ABCs (going above and beyond compliance) and re-purposing the ship's operational waste. Onboard, the Save the Waves program was very transparent, from a plethora of recycling-only containers, and information signs and tags hanging throughout the guest rooms. High-efficiency appliances and fresh water-reduction technologies were visible throughout the ship.

Crew members seemed very informed on the cruise environmental initiatives (and I saw several call out guests that didn't recycle). The captain of the Freedom of the Seas, Ron Holmes, honored the cruise line's advanced waste-water purification systems, a $100 million dollar investment. Near the stern of the boat, a giant, aesthetically pleasing, mural explained to guests that scrubbers were being installed to reduce air pollution. Joy Naral, the environmental officer aboard the ship, explained that these scrubbers would bring the ships fuel emissions to 0.1 percent.                        

With 71.8 million passenger nights booked in 2011, (a 2.8 percent annual increase), it’s clear that the supply and demand for cruises is not dwindling (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2011). With a failing grade from FoE notwithstanding, Royal Caribbean is adopting many initiatives to reduce pollution, energy and water use. The construction of new ships, like the Oasis of the Seas and the Independence of the Seas, means major strides in ship sustainability. Scrubbers are eliminating SOx emissions, cutting NOx emissions by 80 percent and CO2 by more than 20 percent. The ships reuse waste-water and are equipped to face global climate change challenges.

My experience aboard the Freedom of the Sea was extremely enjoyable. Although I was able to point out several areas the cruise ship could improve the allocation of resources, I am confident in the Royal Caribbean’s ever-improving commitment to environmental stewardship.

Austin and I standing in front of the Freedom of the Seas
Austin and I standing in front of the Freedom of the Seas.
About The Author
Meghan PlochEQLU working group Intern

I am a recent Master of Public Affairs and Master of Science in Environmental Science graduate. My focus was on water resources, but I also have a passion for environmental education. I am the rain garden and EQLU working group intern for the Office of Sustainability.  I love working being able to work with many different groups on campus and act as the liaison between many discussion. In addition to working with the Office of Sustainability, I am also a trip leader for IU Outdoor Adventure.