The cruise industry has come under fire for its environmental footprint from environmental organizations, and the U.S. Department of Justice has taken up cases against specific lines for environmental violations.
Meanwhile, the cruise industry insists it is making great strides in reducing its environmental impact by implementing new technologies and following or exceeding international guidelines.
One environmental organization, Friends of the Earth (FOE), even released a 2019 "report card" in June, grading each cruise line and its ships. Most received D's and F's. Cruise lines rejected the grades, questioning FOE's methodology.
FOE asserts taking a cruise can be more harmful to the environment and human health than other forms of travel.
So how will cruises go green?
Brian Salerno, senior vice president of maritime policy at Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), said the industry as a whole has taken steps toward going green both on its own accord and in accordance with the International Maritime Organization's set MARPOL rules, which have been updated over many decades. IMO is an agency of the United Nations.
"This is certainly something that has been a focus of the cruise industry, really even the maritime industry overall," Salerno said.
CLIA, which is the largest trade organization in the cruise industry, has 270 member ships, according to Salerno, who estimated there are more than 300 cruise ships operating around the globe.
“CLIA cruise lines are pioneers in maritime environmental protection and committed to responsible tourism – with policies that often exceed those required by law," CLIA said in a statement.
The initiatives include a commitment from CLIA members to reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030 (in comparison to 2008).
"These investments are already showing significant progress towards reducing the environmental impact of the cruise industry, with many more technologies and practices currently under development," the statement continued.
John Kaltenstein, deputy director of oceans and vessels at FOE, said that while the industry is making some small strides, there's a long way to go.
"I think they’ve made strides ... with the use of what we call advanced wastewater treatment systems," Kaltenstein said. The systems have improved filtering and treating grey water.
But for the majority of the industry, there's a long way to go, according to Kaltenstein.
The United States Department of Justice has brought lawsuits against several major cruise lines.
Currently the DOJ has an open case against Princess Cruises. The cruise line and parent Carnival Cruise Lines pleaded guilty for probation violations in June, stemming from a 2017 felony conviction over dumping oil-contaminated waste from one of its ships and intentional acts to cover it up, according to the DOJ.
"The people doing things perfectly, we aren't going to see," Joe Poux, assistant chief in the Environmental Crimes Section of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the DOJ told USA TODAY.
The cruise lines that are coming to the DOJ's attention on the criminal enforcement side are in scope because something has "not gone well for them."
So with some progress and some missteps by cruise lines, it's a mixed bag in terms of how the industry as a whole is doing.
The cruise industry says it's improving. But is it?
Salerno said that over the last decade, the cruise industry has focused on four areas to reduce cruising's environmental impact, including controlling emissions, sewage treatment, fuel efficiency and recycling.
So are all these areas really evolving in terms of environmental impact? Yes and no, according to CLIA, the DOJ and FOE.
"In recent years there's been renewed emphasis placed on what is going into the air," Salerno said.
That includes air pollutants such as sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide, which can cause respiratory problems. The industry is beginning to control emissions by using an exhaust gas cleaning system (EGCS).
According to CLIA, those systems can reduce sulfur oxide levels by as much as 98% and can reduce nitrogen oxides up to 12%.
As of Jan. 1, the entire shipping world, which includes cruise ships, was required to reduce pollutants by using EGCS, using fuel with a lower sulfur level or using an alternative fuel source.
But according to Kaltenstein, that isn't enough.
The cruise industry is implementing ECGS to be compliant with regulations in the U.S. and on a global scale but instead of using more refined marine fuel, he says they're still using heavy fuel oil and just treating it, which isn't ideal.
Some newer ships are being designed to operate on clean alternative fuels including liquefied natural gas (LNG), which has lower sulfur emissions, Salerno explained.
FOE doesn't see that as a silver bullet solution either.
"Not going to see really any greenhouse gas benefits," said Kaltenstein. "A lot of the environmental community does not see LNG as an answer to the climate problem."
"While international law allows for discharge of untreated sewage beyond 12 miles [from the shore], CLIA’s Waste Management Policy prohibits the discharge of untreated sewage at sea anywhere around the world under normal operating conditions," Salerno said.
For those some 270 ships that are a part of the CLIA fleet, compliance with the policy is a condition for membership, he added.
Advanced wastewater treatment systems are installed on all new ships and many older ones, as well. They include advanced filtration and disinfecting technology that exceeds regulatory requirements put in place by the IMO.
"These advanced wastewater treatment systems rival the best systems on land," Salerno said.
Kaltenstein said that in terms of waste, the industry has done better over the last several years. Putting in advanced wastewater treatment systems has been a good step forward.
Cruise lines have made their ships more fuel efficient by implementing a few different tactics, according to CLIA.
They have added air lubrication systems to many ship hulls, which reduce drag and fuel consumption. Those reductions lead to greater efficiency as do energy-efficient engines that consume less fuel.
"Air lubrication systems are a good example of kinds of technology employed on many new ships to reduce fuel consumption," Salerno said. Not all ships have those systems in place yet though.
"When you consider most of them when they're built, you're looking at a 30-year life cycle," he explained. "It pays to put in the most efficient systems that you can. Doing that allows the ship to operate into the future without having to undergo major retrofits. The more efficient you can start out, the better off you are."
Shoreside, ships are also able to "plug in" at ports, which reduces emissions overall.
Like some hotels onshore, cruises have been doing what they can to reduce single-use plastics.
"Many cruise lines have adopted policies against the use of single-use plastic," Salerno said.
One of those lines is Norwegian Cruise Line. It announced last year that it would eliminate single-use plastics in 2020 by partnering with rapper, actor and activist Jaden Smith's JUST Goods Inc. to use paper cartons for water.
The cruise line previously got rid of single-use plastic straws in 2018 across its private islands and resort as well as its 16 ships.
And according to the Miami Herald, Royal Caribbean was looking to replace its more than 65 million plastic utensils with compostable options, along with other reusable options.
Carnival has also said it will take steps to reduce plastic use onboard by stopping balloon drops, using reusable straws and other steps.
Kaltenstein said he believes that the progress away from single-use plastics is a positive step forward for the industry.
"I think to not provision as much in terms of plastic is important; I'd like to see it all be done away with," he said.
One of the issues with plastics, Kaltenstein said, is that the systems for controlling plastic, to make sure it doesn't end up in the ocean, have been breaking down.
"The less you have, the lesser possibility of the materials going into the ocean, one would hope," he explained.
What needs to change?
From the outside looking in, Poux from the DOJ, said it's the corporate culture that needs to change.
Having a judge explain to corporate officers why what is happening on ships with waste is a problem is a "wake-up call" that can "bring in meaningful change," Poux said.
"These are systemic problems," Kaltenstein added. "The only way to address it is to change the corporate culture from the top, to set a mandate."
If a high importance is placed on environmental compliance and making sure that systems are being maintained and used properly to allow the ships to meet standards, then a change is more likely to occur, he added.
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Contributing: Adrienne Jordan, David Oliver
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cruise ship environmental impacts: How is the industry going green?