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Cruise travel: How to minimise your environmental impact

Cruise travel: How to minimise your environmental impact

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.

Read more: Sustainable travel swaps: 9 ways to reduce your impact

P&O cruise ship at night
Night on deck

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?

Vancouver's Canada Place Cruise Ship Terminal
Vancouver’s Canada Place Cruise Ship Terminal

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?

Norwegian fjords cruise
Cruise ships in Norway

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.

Two cruise ships in dock
Two cruise ships in dock

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.

Alaska cruise ship
Alaska cruising

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:

Cruise ship decks
Looking down

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)?
Costa cruise ship in Istanbul harbour
Sailing into Istanbul
  • 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).

Cruise ship in Santorini, Greece
Tendered in Santorini

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.

MSc cruises ship
Sunset ship

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.

Alaskan mountain peaks
Sailing through Alaska

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.

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How can we minimise our environmental impact when on a cruise? Tips for choosing a sustainable cruise line and things you can do to help on board ship | Cruise sustainability | Sustainable cruising | Cruising and the environment | Environmental impact of cruisesHow can we minimise our cruise environmental impact? Tips for choosing the most sustainable cruise line and things you can do to help on board ship | Cruise sustainability | Sustainable cruising | Cruising and the environment | Environmental impact of cruises

Tim

Saturday 16th of April 2022

Excellent article, thank you! Just to add one other thing people can do to reduce their impact is to eat plant based, of course on and off the ship.

Lucy Dodsworth

Friday 29th of April 2022

Yes true – and even cutting down on meat, fish and dairy can have a positive impact.

Cole

Sunday 13th of March 2022

Funny, how there is absolutely no information on the internet about Viking’s environmental impact…certainly makes one wonder.

Kath Johnson

Friday 23rd of August 2019

No info on Viking Cruise lines.

Lucy

Monday 2nd of September 2019

Hi Kath, no I wasn't able to track down any info about their ocean cruise lines' sustainability specifically, will get in touch with them though and see if they can point me in the right direction.

Heather Cowper

Thursday 18th of October 2018

I don't think the true environmental credentials are that transparent for most cruises - it's good to take a behind the scenes tour if one's available to find out more.

Lucy

Thursday 25th of October 2018

Yes it's a tough one to find out any detailed info about, but hopefully cruise lines will be more transparent about their environmental impact as people become more conscious of the effects of their travels.

Mary O. Greenberg

Monday 15th of October 2018

Terrific post, Lucy! Thoughtful and important information. My husband & I were on a cruise in Antarctica – where environmental regulations are incredibly strict – and it made me wish the rest of the world could be treated with as much care.

Lucy

Monday 15th of October 2018

Thanks Mary! It's good to hear that Antarctica is treated differently as it's such a fragile ecosystem, hopefully some of those lessons will get passed on to other parts of the world too.