Cruise travel is big business. Almost 30 million people took a cruise in 2019, with numbers rising by two thirds in the last ten years. More routes, bigger ships and better facilities have opened up cruising to a whole new group of people – me included. Cruising’s not just for retirees and honeymooners any more. And although the pandemic has slowed things down, the cruise industry will be back, and as it grows so does the environmental impact of cruising.
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. Although it’s sometimes justified – like when Carnival Cruises was fined $40 million for illegal oil dumping – things are beginning to change. The pandemic has been a reset which has given cruise companies the opportunity to stop and look to the future. Could that be a greener one?
Can cruising be sustainable?
Technology is helping lower the environmental impact of cruises with new developments 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 a hybrid engine, wind and solar power and an educational mission. But can a cruise ever be green? If you’re looking for a low impact, sustainable holiday, cruising probably isn’t for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t minimise your environmental footprint if you do want to take a cruise though.
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 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 four different elements of sustainability: sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance and transparency (though everyone except Disney and Royal Caribbean Group gets an F for this as the other cruise lines have boycotted the survey) and any criminal violations.
In the 2020 rankings, Disney tops the list with a B- followed by Silversea with a 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.
Along the highest-rated ships are the Disney’s Wonder, Magic and Fantasy ships, Princess Cruises’ Sun Princess, P&O’s Pacific Adventure and Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Norwegian Star, all of which are graded A-C. But cruise lines fleets can vary hugely – Norwegian also have a ship right at the bottom of the list, along with Carnival, Costa 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:
- Fred Olsen
- Holland America
- 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 bed linens and towels, especially around the pool. Some cruise lines have piles 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 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 that companies are fighting to distinguish themselves and attract more customers. So the more pressure they get from customers to improve 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.