Big Number Shows Just How Much Cruise Ships Are Polluting the World’s Oceans

A new report reveals that the 'floating cities' dump a billion gallons of sewage a year—and it’s all perfectly legal.

(Photo: Brandon Cripps/Flickr)

Dec 8, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

They say cruise ship passengers put on a pound a day while sailing, but that’s not nearly as much as they’re leaving behind.

Those all-you-can-eat buffets and open bars add up to a lot of waste, and when you’re out at sea, it has to go somewhere. For cruise ship operators, that usually means dumping sewage in the open ocean—which is legal.

Cruise ships dump about 1 billion gallons of sewage overboard every year, and much of it is raw or poorly treated, according to federal data acquired by the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

The watchdog group released a report card looking at the 16 biggest cruise line companies, giving each one letter grades for sewage treatment, air pollution reductions, and water quality compliance. FOE also assigned individual grades to each of the 167 cruise ships in operation.

The 2014 report found a steady improvement for cruise lines sailing newer, energy-efficient ships. But 40 percent of the global cruise ship fleet is outfitted with waste-treatment technology more than 35 years old.

“Such antiquated treatment systems leave harmful levels of fecal matter, bacteria, heavy metals, and other contaminants in the water,” the report stated.

Ships are also releasing around 8 billion gallons of gray water from sinks, showers, and baths every year; that water often contains the same pollutants as sewage and can significantly impact water quality.

It may sound shady, but it’s legal. Cruise ships are governed by international protocols, but as long as ships are more than three nautical miles from shore, they can dump as much sewage as they want into the ocean—treated or untreated.

“We're encouraged that some cruise lines are taking incremental steps to improve their performance, but the entire industry must stop hiding behind weak regulations and take action to make sure the oceans their ships travel remain as clear as the photos in cruise brochures,” Marcie Keever, an FOE program director, said in a statement. “This is an industry worth billions of dollars that could install the most advanced sewage treatment and air pollution reduction technology available.”

Representatives from the Cruise Lines International Association did not respond to a request for comment.

So who’s the greenest, and who’s the worst?

Disney Cruise Line was ranked as the most environmentally responsible, receiving A grades in sewage treatment and water quality compliance and a B in pollution reduction.

One of the worst, in terms of sewage treatment, is one of the largest. Carnival Cruise Lines received an F in the category, with only two ships in its 24-ship fleet possessing advanced treatment technology.

For transparency, every cruise line received an F grade from FOE, as the entire industry refused to give the environmental group access to information on the cruise liners’ pollution-reduction technologies.

“By working to stifle the Cruise Ship Report Card, the industry attempted to shield itself from continued scrutiny of its environmental practices, and obscure data from conscientious consumers who would make different choices based on how a cruise ship or line performs on the report card,” Keever said.