What happens on cruise ships doesn’t always stay on cruise ships.
In fact, in Miami, one of the largest cruise ports in the world, the waste that gets expelled from these huge ships is pushing some ocean lines to reinvent how their floating cities treat the environment.
At stake is what to do with seven tons of solid waste each day on each ship.
Ocean cruisers are exempt from provisions of the Clean Water Act, a status that permits them to handle several types of sewage – black water, gray water, bilge water and solid and hazardous waste – in a variety of ways.
Cruise ships are allowed to release treated sewage and gray water, which is waste water from dishwashers, sinks, showers and laundry, into the ocean. They are allowed to release the waste anywhere they wish except in Alaska, where a 2000 federal law prohibits such discharges.
Bilge water consists of fuel, oil, and wastewater from engines. The Oil Pollution Act limits cruise ship bilge discharge to no more than 100 parts per million of oil into the ocean. Several cruise line companies are required to have additional equipment that treats bilge water.
Cruise ships generate solid waste that includes large volumes of food waste, cans, glass, wood, paper and plastics.
The Marine Pollution Control Act bans cruise ships from dumping plastics anywhere, but they are permitted to dump garbage into the ocean if it has been ground into smaller pieces.
Hazardous waste comes from waste products of dry cleaning, batteries, paints and photo developing. Cruise ships are required to store these wastes onboard, and then dispose of them in onshore facilities.
Oceana is the largest of a number of international organizations working directly to protect the oceans and to conserve the marine environment. Oceana’s vision is to make the oceans rich, healthy and abundant as they once were.
“Rapid, diligent, concerted efforts based on sound science and good public policy are imperative to restore the health of our world’s oceans,” said Susan Murray, Oceana’s senior director of the Pacific. “We owe it to our children and their children to literally turn the tide on the fate of the oceans.”
The Royal Caribbean cruise line is installing Advanced Wastewater Purification systems to clean wastewater. At the end of the cleaning process, the wastewater meets wastewater discharge standards.
“AWP cleans the waste water to a very high standard,” said Paul D’Annunzio, Royal Caribbean’s environmental manager.
“We are installing these systems onboard that will cost over $150 million, none of which are required by law,” D’Annunzio said.
Royal Caribbean officials see it as a business investment for the future.
“Cruise destinations are often located in some of the most biologically rich, unique and sensitive places on Earth, and it is our responsibility to ensure that our actions and those of our guests do not unintentionally degrade the very places that make our product attractive and unique,” said Jamie Sweeting, Royal Caribbean’s vice president of environmental stewardship.
“It is no small task to make sure our guests and crew understand the importance of complying with onboard policies and procedures related to managing chemicals and waste streams,” Sweeting said. “The educational challenge is compounded because of the limited amount of time guests spend onboard and the fact that we must remember they are on vacation.”
Royal Caribbean is a member of the Cruise Lines International Association, a trade group of 26 cruise lines that promotes cruising to consumers and works with travel agents.
The association has an environmental committee that meets with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to discuss issues related to compliance with environmental regulations.
“It’s tougher nowadays for cruise ships to bypass law,” said Raymond Scattone, an environmental studies professor at Florida International University. “Say a cruise ship spills waste in the ocean. There are now GPS systems on them, so the government can keep track.”
“So more cruise ships are more protective of what they do. Cruise ships store the waste and take it to disposal facilities on shore,” Scattone said. “It’s a lot better than it used to be and most cruise ships are following law and regulations.
“However, food waste is a big issue that still needs to be under control in cruise ships,” he said. “Most cruise ships have all-you-can-eat buffets.”