Environmental Impact of Cruise Ships

Next time you admire that glossy brochure touting a cruise to Alaska’s pristine Inside Passage or are considering a Disney Cruise with Grandma, Grandpa and the entire family, look beyond the gourmet dining and children’s program. Ask yourself how these cruise lines impact our environment?

While some cruise lines take great care to tread lightly on their surroundings, other companies are failing miserably. Have you asked yourself if cruising is any greener than flying?

Marcie Keever, Clean Vessels Campaign Director for Friends of the Earth notes, “it only costs about 1-3% of the value of a single cruise ship to install advanced sewage treatment technology on a cruise ship.”


2009 Cruise Ship Environmental Report Card

According to a report issued September 16, 2009 by Friends of the Earth, cruise ships are like floating cities that release substantial amounts of pollution into the air and water.

I recently spoke with Friends of the Earth Clean Vessels Campaign Director Marcie Keever to ask her what cruise ship passengers could do to be proactive in selecting their next cruise.

“Passengers have a choice in where they want to go and what they want to eat; even what shore excursions they select,” said Keever. “For the first time, passengers have a choice in what environmental impact their cruise ship will have.”

In September of 2009, I sailed aboard Holland America Line’s Westerdam and took a behind the scenes look at their waste recycling center. While I don’t think many people would be interested in watching a video of their food waste management system, Holland America takes great pride in its environmental record.

The company was one of the first cruise ships to sail in Alaska and they have no intention of fouling their own backyard. Like Princess Cruises, HAL has installed shore powered technology where available. However, utilizing shore powered technology requires joint cooperation between the port and the ship. Many port infrastructures don’t yet have the ability to support these power grids.

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I look forward to learning more about Princess Cruises environmental programs when I sail as a guest of the Crown Princess from Miami, Florida on a 7-day Western Caribbean cruise.

Here’s what Julie Benson, Public Relations Director, had to say about Princess Cruises environmental policies. “We care deeply for the environment. We make our living on the ocean. We’re a highly regulated business. In terms of our commitment and our doing things the right way, we meet or exceed all environmental requirements.”

You can follow along on my discoveries via the #FollowMeAtSea hashtag I’ll use on Twitter.

What can you do as a consumer to support a clean marine eco-system? Roaming Tales blogger Caitlin urges you to sign the Clean Cruise Act petition. What’s your take on cruising and the environment? Leave a comment below.

28 thoughts on “Environmental Impact of Cruise Ships”

  1. Barbara @ Hole In The Donut Travels

    Excellent post, Nancy! I have not yet taken my first cruise, but after reading this article, the green factor is something I will definitely consider before making my choice.

  2. Trisha from Travel Writers Exchange

    Great post, Nancy – this is a conversation more people need to be having. I agree with Caitlin – I’d like to see more regulation, but the travel industry lobby is a powerful one, so I fear the government intervention will come slowly, if at all. It’s more likely that we’ll see changes when more travelers voiced concern over this issue, and start making choices that effect the bottom line of the Cruise companies.I’m looking forward to hearing what Princess has to say – I hope you’ll grill them on this!!

  3. This is a hugely important issue and I am delighted you’re shedding some light on the cruise ships that are making an effort. I will *never* forget island hopping around Greece on a small cruise ship and accidentally stumbling on their dumping plan. A client faxed me on board and when I went to the captain’s office to pick the fax up, there was a list posted of what they were unloading – 1mile from land, 2 miles from land, etc. Never again did I swim off that ship. I was astounded at the way they were fouling their own nest. This issue arose again when the big ships started coming to pristine Monterey Bay. NIMBY! I am a huge fan of cruising (jealous of your Miami trip!) and glad you’re so eloquently advocating for not just our planet, but for the healthy future of the cruise industry.

  4. Glad to see these giant floating hotels being analyzed and graded. I don’t get the sense this kind of tourist is very aware of their environmental impact, but for those who are this helps guide them to the ones doing the least damage.

  5. Cruise lines are paying much more attention to their environmental impact–primarily because of new laws now in place. THat’s particularly true in Alaska.On balance, cruise ships are one of the most environmentally prudent ways to travel. There is no cleaner way to move 2,000-3,000 people at a time. Even walking has its own problems. THink Sherman’s march through Georgia. HA.

  6. Vera Marie Badertscher

    Don’t know why Scott says there is no cleaner way to move people–for the air maybe, but not for the endangered oceans. I’m not a cruiser, but if I were, I would certainly pay attention to this grading chart.

  7. i don’t like cruises – i get so very seasick from even WATCHING the ocean sometimes. i took a short cruise about 10 years ago (florida to the bahamas) and it was one of the worst experiences of my life. ugh. that said, i think that cruise ships really, really need to take care of how they operate. great article!

  8. I’m also very interested in the environmental and social impact of all forms of tourism and since accepting the #FollowMeAtSea Princess Cruises invitation a few months ago have been compiling information. I’ve just finished interviewing multiple sources on the topic of cruising, and the answers I got from most of them quite surprised me. I’ll be writing about it after taking a tour of the recycling, sewage treatment, and other facilities on the Crown Princess before finalizing my article. I write for the web, but really like to stick to the fundamentals of taking time to verify facts rather than get caught up in the fray of hysterics people can get worked into after reading fringe websites (usually published in Comic Sans font and/or using a lot of red lettering), as seems to have happened on Twitter recently :).I think all travelers would benefit from carefully choosing a company, whether it’s a cruise line, airline, hotel (some huge raw sewage polluters in that category). Asking questions and considering all the implications of mass tourism in any destination (Paris!) is the way to go.

  9. Hi Nancy,Thanks for the introduction to some of the environmental issues in the cruise industry and links to further information. I’ve been on one cruise in the past, on a Norwegian cruise to different islands of the Caribbean when I was 15, but I still consider myself a cruise newbie. But whether on a cruise, at the airport, on the beach, or out in the wilderness, I’m always observant of how I and fellow trekkers travel; I think the impact of tourism in general hit home for me when I lived in Thailand five years ago and saw how locals and tourists alike treated the beaches of Ko Samui and Ko Phangan, for instance. I’m learning a great deal from all of the #followmeatsea tweets and I look forward to learning more, both from the cruise folks, writers like you, and my own observations on and off the ship. I work at a college in Oakland that strives to be a zero-waste campus, so being part of a sustainable institution with such an effective community composting and recycling effort makes me very curious to see what these efforts are like on a cruise line such as Princess. And I know there’s much more to it than recycling and waste management — I plan to go with an open mind and wide eyes and will just discover as the week unfolds…The ethical/environmental travel discussions on Twitter also reminded me of my recent trips with my nephews to both Disneyland and the San Diego Zoo — it’s interesting to see how these sorts of destinations tackle these kinds of programs. (In Disneyland, I saw not one recycling or compost bin, nor did I see items such as recyclable to-go containers; the zoo, however, was much more conscious.) I think I’m going off-topic now, so I’ll just say thanks to you and the other tweeters for starting the discussion. I’m sure it’ll get much more interesting — and perhaps heated — in the week to come.Cheers,Cheri

  10. HAL must tour all media through the Westendam’s recycling and waste management operation. I was aboard that very ship for a culinary story several years ago. I too was impressed, though the cynic in me realizes that a few good ships are literally and figuratively a drop in the ocean when it comes to sound environmental practices. Green ships are better than dumpers, but the issue is not cruising versus flying. After all, except for individuals who live in/near a cruise-ship port, passengers generally fly to/from the ship. In addition to air/water issues, there is the sheer impact of a big ship in a small port — the infrastructure required to berth large ships, the economic impact (some good, some bad as small local businesses are overhwelmed by those catering to cruise-ship day-trippers on their canned shore excrusions). For info on the biggest cruise ship of them all, currently crossing the Alantic en route to Florida, see http://travel-babel.blogspot.com/2009/11/oasis-of-seas-now-at-sea.html . Claire @ http://www.travel-babel.com

  11. Bravo, Nancy, on highlighting this issue in a positive, informative way! Another aspect of these giant cruise liners that doesn’t seem to get much attention in the bilge water: Huge amounts of H2O are scooped up at the departure, and dumped when ships reach their destinations. All sorts of little critters inadvertently hitch along for the ride, and are then introduced as alien species into new environments. The zebra mussels that are devastating the Great Lakes are a prime example of this.

  12. Melanie@TravelsWithTwo

    Nancy, I’m really looking forward to following you all at sea and learning more about the environmental impact of cruising. It’s the #1 reason we haven’t yet been on a big-ship cruise.My husband and I have lately considered trips through the Inside Passage and the Norwegian fjords, but in our fantasy planning we gravitate towards smaller vessels.Having seen floating islands docked amidst the dead reefs of Mykonos, Key West, and Nassau…I don’t know, these behemoths just don’t feel sustainable.My parents love cruising, though; they’ve taken jazz cruises through Mexico’s Sea of Cortez and alongside Panama, and swear they’re a traveler’s dream. (That is, um, if you like jazz.) Despite being regular contributors to eco-friendly causes, however, they did exactly zero research into the environmental impact of either sailing…so I agree that most cruise fans are probably not hyper-concerned about this issue.I’ve had as hard a time finding reliable, fact-based information as anyone here. Your fam trip will be an invaluable resource for all of us. For now, I’ve signed the Clean Cruise Act petition, and will tweet it along for others!

  13. Asian Proverb; Tourism is a like a fire, you can cook your dinner on it, or it can burn your house down.” Big cruise ships and the harm they do to all of us is one of the most important topics in travel and rarely discussed in depth because of the very powerful rich cruise industry that spends millions lobbying congress and the travel industry. The cruise industry has grown twice as fast as any other travel industry in the last 10 years the average ship has grown 90 feet every 5 years! Most people have no idea that cruising is 7x worse than air travel on C02 emissions, not to mention the average cruise ship can generate over 200,000 gallons of sewage and 1 million in grey water!I’m sure you can see by the number of comments here and the popularity of your much retweeted post concerning the environmental impact of cruise ships., that people are interested in these issues! Any one who travels ( locals too) know that if you want a quality experience, you AVOID cruise ship days and their wall to wall crowds at all cost!I have an elderly aunt who loves to cruise, as mostly seniors do,but I never thought much about cruising, as the crowds are just not my style any more than Disneyland is. We have had a unique, close up view of cruising on our open ended family world tour (4 continents,32 countries so far, non-stop since 2006) because we do slow travel.We have stayed a month or more in some of the most popular cruise ship destinations/ports in the world like Dubrovnik, Santorini, Mykonos, Barcelona, Venice, Istanbul, Ephesus, Rome, Genoa, Rhodes,Capri ,Nice, Monte Carlo ,Portofino, Athens etc. We got to see what happens to an ancient small site when 30,000 people from several floating cities flooded it like locusts! We’ve experienced them in high season and low and have become experts (thanks to locals) on how to avoid these monsters at all cost.I wish everyone could experience it and the difference-the peace,quiet and serenity that happens on non cruise days, times and seasons. It has made an everlasting impression on me, one very similar to the 6.9 earthquake I experienced near the badly damaged epicenter of the 1989 SF quake. To experience a very beautiful, serene place that instantly becomes a living hell would allow everyone to see the glaring truth that this is the least sustainable travel that exists! This is what has fueled my passion on the topic as well as talking to locals and lots of reading about it after these experiences, It is truly obscene and frightening to witness.Yes, indeed @caitlin lets scrutinise them closely and guard for green wash / spin. This industries PR machine is masterful at pretending they care.@Jennifer So true! Glad you brought up that issue! There are MANY sub issues that are also important but few write about in travel because tans, cocktails, and dresses are easier to write and tweet about. What about issues like the coral destruction in the Caribbean from cruise ship anchors, the poorly paid workers on board from developing nations, how excursions shops pay a high percentage back to the cruise company, health issues and on and on. If you look deeply, does the cruise industry really help the local people or do they mostly help themselves with their billions in net profits?If we don’t start speaking up and educating the public, will these places that we love so much even be around for our children and grandchildren to travel to? Are we going to cook dinner or burn the house down?

  14. Cruising isn’t green. And with existing technology, there’s no way to make it green. The best we can hope for if we wish to cruise (and I do), is to choose a line that takes steps to minimize their impact with onboard initiatives as well as at the corporate level.I’ve accepted the trade offs of travel and environmental harm, but not everyone can get to that same place.

  15. Andrea M. Rotondo

    Let me start by saying I’m a writer that specializes in the luxury cruise industry, among other things. I travel by cruise ship often and 99% of the time, I’m footing the bill myself. I cruise because I like it and I believe in the industry.The environmental impact of cruise ships is a very important issue but, like so many other complicated aspects of life, you can’t look at that factor alone. You need to simultaneously consider maritime laws, global economic stimulus, U.S. corporate tax law, ship building technology, and so much.One thing I think we can all agree on…change begins with us. We are all capable of calling our senators and representatives to demand environmental stewardship of all U.S.-based corporations.We can also vote with our dollars.If you feel that mega cruise ships are killing the environment, then just don’t book that cruise. But don’t feel that you can’t vacation at sea. There are plenty of small sailing ships and environmentally friendly motor yachts.And, let your favorite cruise lines know that the environment is important to you and ask them to tell you what they’re doing to green up the industry. Most cruise executives I know love the world’s oceans and do care deeply about the future of the industry.When it comes to anything precious, like our environment, it’s tempting to draw a line in the sand and see everything as either all good or all bad…black or white. However, we live in a complicated word with many shades of gray. This is a gray issue.There’s been a lot of focus on this issue in recent days but I’ve heard nothing about going after the commercial shipping industry with the same accusations of destroying the planet. I’d love someone to do some research on that…I’m sure there are thousands more cargo container ships plying our oceans than leisure cruise ships. They not only pollute the oceans but often lose containers overboard that float the oceans for years.We need to change maritime laws, not attack one sliver of the industry.Cruise travel is an excellent way to explore the world and I’ll continue to book cruises in the future.

  16. @Melanie I just wanted to say that your instincts are right on… one really can tell just by looking at these behemoths that they could not bel sustainable. I can’t think of a better mascot symbolizing the over the top, over consumerism, wasteful bloat of the last decade of unconscious living! It’s exactly what people were encouraged to do…refinance the house use that equity to buy a car or go on a luxury cruise with 4000 best friends!….BUT that doesn’t mean you have to give up travel by sea!There ARE some eco friendly small, intimate cruise ships, most of them by sail that will enrich your experience of place much more, while also being kind to earth. Also, alternatively, consider just a day cruise or cruises in Norway fjords, that’s what we did and it’s more than enough, plus you get to explore more on your own via the Norway in a nutshell railways, like the famous Flam, which are easy to do and fun. Awesome!We also did this on a river cruise from Melk to Krem and back…..another famous cruise route, Who wants to be on those buses with hoardes from the ship when it is so easy and more enjoyable on your own,,, MUCH cheaper too! Its much less impact because they are smaller and 3000 to 7000 people aren’t on them sleeping,eating,showering,going to the bathroom etc, The waste I mentioned in my previous post…200,000 gallons of sewage…was just for one week for your average sized 3000 peopled floating island! Another brilliant option is cargo ships which are very luxurious, but usually only have 8 to 12 passengers, Talk about romantic and peaceful…you will feel you are in another world! We put our RV right on them and some have traveled all over the world this way!It may be true that cruise fans are not yet hyper-concerned about these environmental issues, but isn’t it really about education? The cruise industry and their lobby is similar to nicotine/big tobacco years ago.Cruisers at this point, don’t know and/or don’t want to know the facts.We still see this in Europe with smoking and it is ALL about education. There is a HUGE difference in education and knowledge about the facts of smoke’s harms between peoples in California and most of Europe. Most smokers in Europe do not believe smoking is harmful just as many cruisers do not see the harm in cruises,It always starts with education. The #followmeatsea is a press trip paid for by a cruise company who clearly want positive publicity for their gift. i hope all of us that have these concerns and signed the petition can also write posts tweet on this topic!

  17. It’s great to see cruise liners starting to deal with this issue – it should have happened a long time ago but better late than never! While I’m sure that some/many of the efforts are genuine, I think we need to scrutinise them closely and guard for green wash / spin. I also think that relying on the cruise companies is not enough – we need better regulation. It’s legal for a cruise ship to dump untreated sewage if they’re more than 3 miles off shore and it shouldn’t be, especially considering some of these ships are the size of cities!Marine pollution is one issue but carbon emissions and the sustainability impact on the ports are also important.My website has been playing up this morning but the direct links to my posts are:http://www.roamingtales.com/2009/10/15/why-you-should-rethink-that-cruise/http://www.roamingtales.com/2009/10/21/help-clean-up-the-cruise-industry/Thanks for writing about it! It’s an important issue.

  18. I’ll be on the tour and I look forward to learning about it as well. I recently took Celebrity’s Solstice and Equinox ships and was pleased to learn about their new sewage treatments but according to this chart it looks like they need to work on air pollution.

  19. It is good to hear that the cruise lines are proactive in their efforts towards the environment. There have been many events over the years that made them have to take this stand- pollution of water due to waste and fuel leaks.There is a long history of environmental abuse- bad publicity that the cruise lines have had to reconcile with.Here is a link to a 1999 article on Royal Caribbean:http://bit.ly/1tFbTRAnother:http://bit.ly/3dGKIQThe industry has had to clean up its act so to speak!And the positives are good to see and hear about.

  20. I agree with most of the replies you have gotten here. It is time that this ships get a rating system of some kind. I never seek out a vacation or get away with that many people and think of it as fun but that is a personal opinion. I think that the answer is lay within us. As stated above we need to start putting some pressure on the cruise lines. Just don’t book the cruise and let them know why. But, I don’t think that will happen anytime soon.

  21. Hi Nancy! I’ve been looking closely at this issue, too – and I think really understanding the issues requires a lot more work than most people (on both sides) are willing to do.A big challenge I’ve been having is that much of the data being used against the cruise industry (including Friends of the Earth’s Latest Fact Sheet) was first published almost 10 years ago, so older than 70% of the big ships currently sailing. I hope you’re able to learn more about what’s going on today – but don’t forget to have some fun, too!

  22. @Barbara I love king salmon fishing in Alaska usually fly in on a float plane. I’m new to cruising and still learning about the environmental issues.@ Caitlin thank youfor your passion in helping to protect our oceans.@Trisha I have some specific questions for Princess.@Sarah thanks for pointing out that small ships sometimes foul their nest, as well.@Tim I think an informed traveler will appreciate having choices in cruise ships@Scott Alaska is leading the charge in environmental protection policies@Vera, Friends of the Earth grading chart is wide ranging, but it’s a start@Jessie Cruising is not for everyone@Kim an educated traveler is a smart traveler@Cheri an open mind and wide eyes are always welcome here@Claire I think HAL is justly proud of their environmental efforts@Jennifer good point about the bilge water@Jill shame on Royal Caribbean – thanks for sharing the link@Melanie Alaska’s Inside Passage is awe-inspiring@soultravelers3 you have a lot to say@MaryJo well said@Andrea agreed that we can all participate in environmental stewardship@JohnnyJet we are all learning a lot about the environmental impact of cruising@cafay1 consumers have the right to speak with their wallets@Marc like the Friends of the Earth fact sheet, not everything in the cruise industry is fairly comparing apples to apples, but at least this is a start. As is reflected in all the comments, a deeper look into the cruise industry is warranted.

  23. @Scott @Vera Not for the air either. The ships require electricity and usually they have diesel-burning generators on board. Ships might be a relatively green way to move people if all the wast management systems were in place and the lights went off at 10pm, but that’s not the case.

  24. Hey Nancy,Thank you for sharing this link on my post. It most definitely helps draw people back to the important issues.And I assume that Princess knew well enough that environmental impact would be a topic of hot debate when they created the Twitter cruise. To paraphrase Pam from Nerd’s Eye View, Twitterers and travel bloggers tend to be pretty clear in their own beliefs, and a free cruise isn’t going to change that.I wrote this also as a response to your comment on my blog, but I wanted to add here as well that I in no way intended to paint you or any specific people or group in any way. My main goal was to focus on specific patterns that I see in the travel blogging world. I felt naming names would not be constructive and in fact detract from any potential discussion with what would essentially be name calling.For those who’d like to see the post that sparked this: http://thefutureisred.typepad.com/onedayatatime/2009/11/blogging-for-publicity-watch-as-travel-blogging-jumps-the-shark.htmlYou and I were in contact very early on in my travel blogging life — which hasn’t really been that long — when you commented on another post of mine relating to being a Twitter Newbie.http://tinyurl.com/cs7h7dWhich, btw, is a perfect example of what I mean by both adding value while leading people to your own when commenting on another website.It’s been a while and while I’m sorry the event surrounding our renewed contact has its negativity, I’m happy to be back in touch.

  25. First of all, thanks Nancy for an objective and insightful post about the environmental impact of cruise ships. There’s no doubt that they do have an impact, although so does almost every other form of travel.Like Andrea, I cruise and write about it, paying my own way. The cruise line that I’m most familiar with takes environmental concerns seriously. I’ve just returned from a 52-day cruise in the Pacific. There’s no way that I (or the 699 other passengers) could have visited approximately 20 ports over a large geographic area in a more environmentally sensitive way. To have flown to each of the ports, hired a car, etc. would have been much harder on the environment.On my cruise, I sat on the balcony and watched hundreds of barges, junks and small boats parade up the Huang Pu River in Shanghai 24-hours-a-day. Who monitors them? What pollution acts are they committing? From the looks of the river, quiet a few. How many cruise ships were there? Two.Cruising through Asia, the lights of hundreds of small fishing boats blinked at us as we sailed through the night. What do they do with their waste? Yes, but they only represent a few people, you might say. But those same boats return to the same area night after night. Do you think they aren’t doing any damage to ocean waters?My point is that all watercraft, of any size, should be monitored. Yes, we need to protect our oceans. Yes, cruise ships have been a major problem in the past but they are cleaning up their act. I also have concerns about the report card mentioned in Nancy’s post. What methods are they using to come up with the numbers? Are they scientifically sound? Do we know? Shouldn’t we be questioning all parties concerned?It’s easy to attach a glamorous target like the cruise industry. But if travelers are going to use a report card to decide the merit of cruising on a specific ship, let’s come up with report cards for resorts, hotels, theme parks, etc. Do you travel by RV, offloading your waste into the tank at the RV park? Do you know what happens to it? Are you sure tit’s being handled in an environmentally correct way? The health of our oceans is not just a matter of stopping large cruise ships. Everything we do on land eventually affects the oceans of the earth.Millions of people cruise each year. If the cruise industry ceased to exist, those people will choose another form of travel, polluting in a different way. Is it fair to ask them to stay home while the rest of us go on our merry way?But there’s a silver lining in all this brouhaha. Raising awareness is good for all of us.

  26. I do not commonly comment on blogs, but just desired to say I fully liked reading. Thanks

  27. Shrividya Choudhary

    Im still learning from you, but Im improving myself. I certainly enjoy reading everything that is posted on your blog.Keep the stories coming. I liked it!

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