Cruise travel is big business. Over 27 million people will take a cruise this year, and numbers have risen by 20% over the last five years. More routes, bigger ships and better facilities on board have opened up cruising to a whole new group of people. I never thought I’d be joining them until I took my first cruise around the Med a few years back and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. Cruising’s not just for retirees and honeymooners any more.
But as the cruise industry is growing, so is its environmental impact. Look below the surface and you come across all sorts of horror stories. Sewage and rubbish being dumped, air and water being polluted, invasive species being introduced by pumping ballast water. Cruise ships have been accused of being as polluting as a million cars. When it comes to the environment, cruising has a bad reputation. And although it’s sometimes justified – like when Carnival Cruises was fined $40 million for illegal oil dumping – things are beginning to change.
Can cruising be sustainable?
Technology is helping lower the environmental impact with new development like scrubbers to reduce exhaust pollution, more efficient hull and propeller design, improved water filtration, and a switch from diesel to liquid natural gas. And cruise lines are partnering with environmental groups to share data and organise sustainable shore excursions. There’s even a zero-waste Japanese Ecoship in development, with hybrid engine, wind and solar power.
Can a cruise ever be green? If you’re looking for a low impact, sustainable holiday, cruising probably isn’t for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reduce your environmental footprint if you do want to take a cruise. When you’re on board ship you’re totally reliant on your cruise company. So the biggest way you can influence your environmental impact is by choosing your cruise line – and ship – carefully. But how do you know how sustainable your cruise is?
Choosing a cruise
There’s no official rating of cruise lines’ environmental standards, but there is an unofficial one created by environmental charity Friends of the Earth (FoE) – the Cruise Ship Report Card. It’s pretty controversial though. When FoE started it, the cruise companies and Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) cooperated with them and shared their data. But after a falling out over the results they refused to take part and now say the data’s inaccurate.
It’s interesting reading though, even if you take the results with a pinch of salt. It grades each cruise line and ship from A–F, based on how they deal with sewage, air pollution, water quality, their level of transparency (though everyone except Disney gets an F for this as all the other cruise lines have boycotted the survey!) and if they’ve had any criminal violations. In the 2019 ranking, Disney gets an A- and the rest start at C-, but the results vary hugely by ship.
Technology is changing rapidly, so generally the newest ships rank higher as they have been built with the latest tech and it takes longer and is more difficult to go back and retrofit old ships. But that’s not always the case. Among the cruise lines with A-grade ships in their fleet are Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Disney, Princess, Norwegian and Holland America. And lurking towards the bottom of the pile are Carnival, Costa, Silversea, P&O and MSC.
As well as checking out your ship’s results, it’s worth doing your own research as the study data is a few years old and things are always changing. The big cruise lines all have an environment and sustainability section on their websites where you can find out what they are doing to reduce their impact. You can find them here: Carnival/P&O, Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Cunard, Disney, Fred Olsen, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean.
What to look for
When you’re looking into a cruise line’s record on environment and sustainability, here are the sorts of questions you might want to find out for the answers to:
- How do they deal with waste water (do they use a purification system, how to they reduce water usage, are there low-flow showers and efficient appliances)?
- Do they treat their ballast and bilge water?
- What do they do with their waste (how much do they recycle, what happens to their recyclable waste, what recycling facilities are there for passengers)?
- How to they decrease emissions (do they use scrubbers or alternative fuels)?
- Do they use shore power where they can (‘plugging in’ to local power when they’re docked so the engines can be turned off to reduce air pollution)?
- How do they reduce power usage (is there low-energy lighting, efficient air conditioning, key cards to turn power off when you’re not in your room)?
- Do they use environmentally friendly cleaning supplies?
- Is the fish and seafood onboard sustainably sourced?
- Do they have an environmental officer and do they collaborate with environmental organisations (sharing data with environmental groups or running sustainability projects)?
A lot of the time the information is hidden away on the cruise company websites mixed in with lots of marketing speak, but you should be able to find most of the details – and if not you can get in touch with them (Twitter’s usually a good way to find the right contact).
What you can do
Although you’re pretty reliant on your cruise line when it comes to the environmental impact of your ship, there are still some things you can do yourself. A lot of them are the little changes we’re being encouraged to make at home or on other types of trip too. But even though they might seem small, if enough passengers join in then they can make a difference.
Keep your waste to a minimum: Recycle wherever possible (most ships have recycling bins for paper, plastic, glass and cans, and some have composting bins), don’t bring rubbish onto the ship when you could dispose of it onshore, and definitely don’t throw anything overboard.
Reduce plastic usage: Bring a refillable water bottle so you don’t have to use disposable plastic bottles, avoid using straws, and pack a reusable shopping bag for on-shore shopping.
Reduce energy consumption: Turn the lights off in your cabin when you don’t need them, make sure you unplug your electricals (like phone chargers) when they’re not being used, and open a window or patio door to cool off if you can to avoid using the air con.
Reduce water usage: Take shorter showers, reuse your bed linens and towels, especially around the pool. Some cruise lines have a big pile of towels by the pool which you can help yourself to, so try to keep hold of one all day rather than leaving it and picking up another later.
Bring your own toiletries: In a week’s cruise you can easily get through a dozen mini bottles of shampoo, conditioner and shower gel, so instead pack your own soap and shampoo bars.
And finally – ask questions: If you want to know what a cruise line’s doing for the environment before you book, or don’t know where you can recycle waste when you’re on board ship, then ask someone. The more people ask, the more cruise lines will take these things seriously.
The cruise industry is so competitive now that companies are fighting to distinguish themselves and attract more customers. So the more pressure they get from customers to improve cruise sustainability and environmental standards, the more these issues will rise up their agendas – and hopefully the better the cruise industry’s environmental record will get in future.