The whole business of a cruise line is to be a floating mini-city of fun, sun, unlimited buffet burgers and piña coladas. It’s not really part of the image to talk about the unpleasant reality of where all those burgers and tropical drinks end up. And they have to go somewhere.
According to a report from Friends of the Earth (FOE), more than a billion gallons of sewage, much of it raw or barely treated, is dumped into the ocean annually from cruise ships. In addition to the sewage, roughly 8 billion gallons of “greywater,” water from sinks and showers, is also flushed out to sea.
Some ships are massive enough to hold over 8,000 people. According to Marcie Keever, who wrote the FOE report and spoke to Planet Experts, much of the greywater wasted can often be easily recycled. “I hope they are using some of that to water their lawns,” she says, in reference to one particularly behemoth cruise ship that has distinct “neighborhoods.”
Part of the problem with untreated sewage is that it could contain any combination of water, solids, nutrients, pathogens, worms, greases, other industrial runoff, as well as a variety of toxic chemicals such as pesticides, phenols and dioxins. Any of these could be entirely foreign to a marine habitat, especially chemicals transmitted from land-based contaminants (like beef and piña colada mix, just to name a few examples).
The full extent to which sewage dumping could affect marine life and ecosystems is not entirely researched. However, according Keever, “It is generally known that sewage is a danger.”
Scientists suggest that increased nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) may lead to excessive growth of marine plant life and decay. Plants such as algae often experience a population increase (called an algal bloom), which limits the sunlight available and causes lack of oxygen in water. When oxygen levels decline, the effects could be devastating to marine habitats. Some algal blooms are toxic, furthering devastation of marine populations.
According to the Cruise Lines International Association, Inc (CLIA), the cruise industry is “heavily regulated,” nationally and internationally, and enforcement is “strict and comprehensive.”
Yet maritime law is notoriously convoluted and difficult to regulate. More than 24 miles from shore, a ship technically operates under the law of its country of registration. It is important to note that only one cruise ship in the world is registered to the United States, while the majority take “flags of convenience,” often from developing nations that do not have the resources to pursue environmental regulations. As cruise ships remain isolated and with no real watchdogs to speak of, what happens at sea is likely to remain at sea.
And cruise lines do not have a good record of transparency. From 1993 to 1998, cruise ships were involved in 87 confirmed cases of illegal discharges of oil, garbage, and hazardous wastes into U.S. waters, and have paid more than $30 million in fines. Some of these cases involved multiple incidents of illegal dumping that numbered in the hundreds over the six-year period.
This is why FOE added the category of “Transparency” in their annual cruise line report card, stating “the issue of accountability is paramount” for this year’s analysis. Each company received a failing grade.
According to Keever, most of the laws related to ocean dumping were put into the Federal Clean Water Act of the 1970s, and have never been updated. As of right now, the legality of sewage dumping appears to give cruise lines jurisdiction over when, where and what they decide to dump.
International shipping regulations permit dumping of treated sewage as long as a ship is more than three miles off shore. Untreated sewage requires 12 nautical miles. “The industry would say they don’t dump within 12 nautical miles. But nobody’s watching,” says Keever.
The FOE has advocated for cruise lines to adopt advanced sewage treatment systems since beginning their annual report card in 2009. According to Keever, each ship costs roughly one billion dollars, while advanced sewage treatment is in the millions. “In the scale of the overall cost, it remains a fraction,” she says. “On an existing ship, it is even less, just adding filters on the back end [of the sewage system]. It is essentially the cost of a can of coke per passenger.”