Imagine walking down the street just as the crew of an airplane flying overhead decides to dump sewage from the plane's toilets. Not a pleasant thought. Fortunately, airlines aren't allowed to do this.
But cruise ships do it all the time — and not just with sewage, but with food waste, oily bilge water, and solid waste as well. As an article on the nonprofit news website DC Bureau notes, cruise ship companies that rely on "pristine oceans, beautiful coral reefs and marine life" and "that advertise excursions to untouched ocean scenery are threatening these very same natural resources with their standard practice of flushing harmful toxins, mostly as sewage and food waste, into the ocean."
Although some cruise ship companies have made improvements in waste-water treatment, the industry still has a long way to go. And even though sewage is subject to some regulations, food-waste dumping is not regulated. Considering that a cruise ship can serve from 10,000 to 25,000 meals a day, that's a lot of leftover scraps and waste that are ground up and dumped into often-fragile ocean ecosystems. This waste becomes acidic as it decomposes, increasing nutrients that starve the ocean of oxygen and contribute to the creation of dead zones.
Cruise ship sewage can cause the same problems as food waste, and can also endanger the health of marine, bird, and human life by exposing them to fecal coliforms through direct contact or shellfish consumption.
According to a report by Canadian researcher Ross Klein for U.S. Friends of the Earth, titled Getting a Grip on Cruise Ship Pollution, "A moderate-sized cruise ship on a one week voyage with 2,200 passengers and 800 crewmembers" can generate up to 210,000 gallons of human sewage, one million gallons of grey water (from sinks, baths, showers, laundry, and galleys), eight tons of garbage, more than 130 gallons of hazardous waste, and 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water.
And that's just the stuff that gets dumped into the ocean. Cruise ships also generate a lot of air pollution from incinerators and the high-sulphur bunker fuel they generally use. The Friends of the Earth report notes that, "On average, a cruise ship discharges three times more carbon emissions than aircraft, trains, and passenger ferries."
Because cruise ships follow defined routes, this pollution is dumped over and over again in the same areas.
The technology to treat and properly dispose of the ocean waste isn't all that complicated, but it does cost money. Marcie Keever of Friends of the Earth told DC Bureau that a good treatment system can cost between $1 million and $10 million. That may seem like a lot, but a cruise ship can cost more than a billion dollars to build.
And because cruise ships, like a lot of ocean vessels, are often registered in countries with lax tax laws, their owners pay little tax on massive profits.
When it comes to regulating pollution from cruise ships, Canada has weaker laws than the U.S. and doesn't do a good job of enforcing the laws it does have. In the U.S., regulations vary from state to state. We need to strengthen laws, national and international, across the board, and we need to monitor and enforce those regulations to ensure that the industry is not harming ocean ecosystems.
Cruise ships offer a unique tourism experience and contribute to the economy, but none of this should be at the expense of the environment. Just because cruise ships are registered in countries with fewer regulations and tax laws doesn't mean the industry shouldn't have to follow the same standards as tourism businesses on land.
People who want to take a cruise ship vacation should check to see what kind of standards the ship and company have for environmental protection. (Friends of the Earth recently released an evaluation of the environmental and human health impacts of cruise ships and companies.) If the standards aren't good enough, customers should let the companies know that they will be willing to use their services only when they clean up their acts.
World Oceans Day on June 8 is also a good time to consider telling federal politicians that we need marine-use plans, marine protected areas, and stronger regulations to limit the effects of increased cruise ship traffic on Canada's most sensitive marine environments.