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  • Sabina Griebel

Please, Don't Take A Cruise This Summer


As temperatures warm and vaccines pierce arms, many are looking toward Summer 2021. With the implementation of vaccine passports possibly opening up the ability for those vaccinated to travel, party, and participate in other summer activities, people are considering options that have been closed for most for over a year. One such activity that COVID-19 stopped dead in its tracks? Cruise ships.

Cruise ships are large passenger ships used for vacations. They usually stops at ports, allowing passengers to enjoy short excursions before returning to the ship. Cruise ships came to existence in the latter half of the nineteenth century, increasing in widespread popularity after 1960. With amenities such as all-you-can-eat dining, stores, pools, theaters, and casinos, cruise ships are only growing in popularity. In fact, between 2009 and 2019, cruise ship passengers increased from 17.8 million to 30 million. Cruise ship revenues have increased even more so - from 15.7 billion in 2010 to 31.5 billion in 2020.

Unfortunately, cruise ships wreak havoc on the environment around them. A study from Transport & Environment found that the forty-seven ships owned by Carnival Corporation, the largest luxury cruise liner, polluted ten times more sulfur oxide than all of Europe’s cars in 2017. Royal Caribbean Cruises, the second largest cruise liner, emitted four times more than Europe’s cars.

A graphic demonstrating Carnival corporation’s pollution output, via Transport & Environment.

Sulfur oxides are air pollutants that come from burning raw materials like ore, coal, or oil. Sulfur oxides can mix with water and air to form acid rain, which damages plants, waterways, and soil. Acid rain causes hard-to-repair damage to delicate ecosystems, rendering them all the more susceptible to the effects of climate change.

An investigation found that the air of the top deck of the Oceana, a 250-meter-long cruise ship, contained 84,000 ultra-fine particulates per cubic centimeter, downwind from the funnels. Directly next to the funnels, there were 226,000 ultra-fine particulates per cubic centimeter. At levels similar to those in Shanghai or Delhi, exposure to such polluted air can cause short-term respiratory symptoms for passengers, with unknown long-term damage to crew members. Still, the detrimental effect of air pollution on human health is clear enough; a study done in European Heart Journal found that air pollution reduces the mean life expectancy in Europe by about 2.2 years.

On average, each cruise ship passenger emits 0.82 tons of carbon dioxide. A case study of cruise ship emissions estimates that for a 3,000 passenger cruise, 1,200 kg of carbon dioxide is emitted per kilometer. Of course, such air pollution is a major contributor to climate change, warming the planet. Even compared to flying, which can account for a chunk of a person’s yearly emissions, taking a cruise ship emits four times more C02 than flying per passenger.

Cruise ships emit more than just air pollution. With 3,000 people on board for a week, a cruise creates almost 800 cubic meters of sewage. While some of this sewage is graywater, waste fluid from sinks or showers, there is also black water, human waste, and solid waste. Cruise ships deal with solid waste, things such as cardboard or plastic, by incinerating it. The ashes are then discarded into the ocean as well. The only stipulation for cruise ships dumping all this waste? It has to be at least three nautical miles from shore.

Marine dumping damages the ocean's ecosystems, harming the marine life that is already threatened by other forms of pollution. Water pollution decreases the quality of water, making it toxic. It also hurts human lives; unsafe water kills more people each year than war and all other forms of violence combined. The ocean itself provides half of Earth’s oxygen and is also a potential way to mitigate climate change; after all, ocean habitats like seagrass and salt marshes can process carbon dioxide up to four times faster than terrestrial forests.

Clearly such flagrant pollution is being monitored and punished, right? Yes, in fact. Cruise line after cruise line has been fined millions of dollars for violations such as fuel sulfur content, water pollution, and oil spills. Friends of the Earth produces a handy “report card” for all cruise lines, ranking them on sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, transparency, and criminal violations. Above the numerous failing grades, the website cheerily reminds readers that clean cruising is impossible. The problem is that despite cruise lines occasionally being held accountable, profit is what ultimately determines their actions. For example, the Carnival Corporation was fined $20 million for violating its probation for a previous offense (where they were fined $40 million). The $60 million total was only 0.7% of their profit that year. As such, even huge environmental fines are a drop in the bucket of a massive industry that is ever-growing and making more money. Certainly not enough to incentivize cruise ships to stop their cost-cutting waste removal. Cruise companies are usually incorporated in countries such as Panama, Liberia, or Bermuda - infamous tax havens. As such, they avoid taxes on their income, only increasing their profitability.

Then, COVID-19.

The Diamond Princess Cruise Ship, via Charly Triballeau/AFP.

As cruise ships are crowded and enclosed, a number of ships saw major COVID-19 outbreaks. At one point, over half of COVID-19 cases outside of China were on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. On March 14, 2020, the CDC issued a No Sail Order for cruise ships. Of course, such actions were detrimental to the cruising industry. As of January 2021, Carnival Cruise Line lost $10.2 billion from the pandemic. More pressing, tens of thousands of cruise ship employees were stuck at sea for months. In May, there were 100,000 crew members on cruise ships worldwide. At least three committed suicide.

Nevertheless, the CDC issued a Conditional Sailing Order as a pathway for cruise ships to return in October. An April 2, 2021 update released a new phase of the Conditional Sailing Order, with instructions for cruise ships that hope to operate in U.S. waters.

Cruise ships are pushing to return to normal, too. The CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, Richard Fain, recently expressed his desire for the CDC to allow cruise ships to resume operations. He cited COVID-19 procedures that show promise abroad, such as temperature checks and testing 72 hours before boarding. Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line are also planning to only allow those vaccinated abroad. Members of the industry claim that they want the same regulations as airlines, theme parks, and theaters - all industries that are reopening.

The resuming of cruising operations will bring an end to the environmental reprieve their year-long absence has provided. As freshly-vaccinated and stir-crazy passengers re-embark, the industry will continue to grow and continue its polluting ways.

Luckily, there is an easy way to help for the average person: don’t use cruise ships. While all mechanized transportation pollutes in some way, even flying is better than cruising. Still, look to alternatives such as buses, trains, and road trips to travel in a more eco-friendly way. The main takeaway remains that cruise ships are polluting giants, and avoiding them is something simple that every person should do.

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