Before sailings resume, the cruise industry must regain the public’s trust. Here’s how.
Cruise ships must stop polluting our air and the climate, quit dumping waste into the oceans, and prioritize the health of crewmembers, passengers, and port communities.
By Kendra Ulrich, Shipping Campaigns Director, Stand.earth
It’s cold on the deck of my Princess cruise as we sail full-steam ahead off the North American coast. I’m under a brilliant cover of stars, keeping an eye on my travel companion as he incongruously reaches inside a cloth bag. We hear a beep, and we’re in action. We stand quietly while the handheld device does its job — secretly collecting data on the air quality on board the ship.
For more than two years, Dr. Ryan Kennedy, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, performed undercover tests across multiple cruise ships to collect valuable information and help paint a picture of just how bad the air pollution from these vessels really is.
His investigation confirmed the worst: air pollution on cruise ships can be worse than some of the world’s most polluted cities. These findings came whether the ships were in port or at sea — alarming news for anyone who presumes an ocean breeze carries ship exhaust away from their lungs.
As the world stares down yet another public health crisis for which cruise ships are partly to blame, the industry has repeatedly fumbled its disaster response by prioritizing profits at the expense of public health. As the coronavirus pandemic grew, ships continued to set sail, carrying the virus around the world and ultimately contributing to the death toll. Those same ships were forced to quarantine crew members and passengers, with thousands still stuck at sea. Most recently, cruise executives continue their deadly decisionmaking by announcing a summer sailing schedule just days after becoming the subject of a federal probe.
Now, a growing chorus of people, from residents living in port communities to former cruise workers and environmental advocates, are leading the charge to ensure cruise companies change their reckless behavior, once and for all.
If cruise companies want to set sail again, they need to heed society’s warning and clean up their act. It’s time to stop polluting our air and the climate, quit dumping waste into the oceans, and prioritize the health of crewmembers, passengers, and port communities.
Profits over people and the environment
Due to the cruise industry’s role in spreading COVID-19, governments around the world forced a temporary shut down of cruise ship sailings. Many countries also rejected the sector’s plans to restart sooner, demanding they have a plan to handle future outbreaks on board. But so far, the plans that have been announced allowing cruises to resume later this summer do little to address two pervasive public health and environmental threats: ultra-dirty fuels and ocean dumping.
Cruise ships have long relied on heavy fuel oil to support the massive energy demands required to power these floating cities. Instead of switching to cleaner fuels as required by international regulations earlier this year, the cruise industry pursued a loophole that allowed ships to install “cheat devices” called scrubbers in order to keep burning dirt-cheap fuel made from the bottom-of-the-barrel sludge that is left over from the refining process.
Companies argue these systems purportedly use water to “wash away” pollutants — but instead of actually reducing pollution, scrubbers simply convert air pollution into water pollution when the scrubber wastewater gets dumped overboard. What’s more, scrubbers remove only some of the pollutants in heavy fuel oil, leaving the rest to escape from ships’ exhausts to poison passengers’ lungs. (All of the ships monitored as part of the Johns Hopkins air pollution study had scrubbers installed, and still had air pollution readings as bad or worse than Beijing.)
Despite traveling to some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world, cruise ships also have long operated with utter disregard for the people and places they visit.
Not afraid to stop there, Carnival, which is currently on probation, continued to break the law, illegally dumping thousands of gallons of untreated greywater inside Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, and knowingly discharged plastic waste into the sensitive coral reefs of the Bahamas. When Carnival executives got caught violating laws, they refused to pony up, instead making scapegoats out of what they called “rogue actors” on the crew.
Dumping scrubber wastewater — in addition to dumping greywater and food and plastic waste — overboard is simply business as usual for the cruise industry.
In this current age of coronavirus and the looming threat of climate change, the cruise industry needs to fundamentally rethink how it pursues profits over people. Instead of images of cruise ships acting as petri dishes for disease, smokestacks billowing dirty fuels, and ships dumping toxic waste, cruise executives have a moral imperative to help the world envision a healthier, cleaner future for the cruise industry, one where ships don’t threaten public health and pollute our air, our oceans, and the climate.
If it wants to exist in our post-pandemic world, the cruise industry must undergo transformational change.
Cruise companies cannot stop at introducing protocols to deal with public health threats like COVID-19. They must also standardize pollution monitoring, prevent ocean dumping, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They must make the switch to the cleanest fuels available right now (we’re not talking about LNG) and further cut fuel use by implementing slow steaming and investing in renewable technologies.
If the cruise industry wants to regain the public’s trust and secure the social license to set sail again, cruise executives simply cannot hide their heads in the sand and act as though the world hasn’t radically changed.
Cruise companies have the tools and technology available to lead the entire shipping industry toward a better future. Burning toxic fuel, dumping waste, polluting our air and water, and poisoning passengers and port communities is simply no longer going to cut it.
Kendra Ulrich is the Shipping Campaigns Director at Stand.earth, an international environmental organization known for its groundbreaking research and successful corporate and citizen campaigns to create new policies and industry standards in protecting forests, advocating the rights of Indigenous peoples, and protecting the climate. Ulrich has worked on energy and environmental issues for nearly two decades, most recently spearheading Stand.earth’s campaign to pressure the cruise industry to transition away from burning heavy fuel oil to power its ships. She regularly participates in negotiations on international shipping regulations at the U.N. International Maritime Organization.