Cruise Ship Pollution: Why the cities of the sea must be silenced

Bruno Cooke
Jan 21, 2020 · 10 min read

The largest cruise ships emit staggering amounts of carcinogenic air pollution, and are operated by cantankerous corporations willing to cut dangerous corners. In short: there is conspiracy — even in the bilge.

When I read this, my heart did that wobble-wobble thing.

I don’t drive, I don’t eat meat; I recycle when possible, and turn off lights I’m not using. I don’t have kids.

[ —there are substantive arguments which show that adopting, rather than producing, children could be the most effective and long-lasting thing you can do as an individual (or couple, wahey) to minimise your CO2 output. Read this, then this.]

But the decisions of individuals amount to very little in the wake of those made by cultures and corporations, obviously. These entities hold the keys to a cleaner future.

Statistics abound: global carbon emissions reached an all time high in 2018; Indonesia has decided to move its capital city, because its current one is actually sinking; more rhinos are dying; and more, and more, and more. But one thing stuck out to me recently…

In 2017, Carnival Corporation, the world’s biggest operator of luxury cruises, emitted more sulphur dioxide (SOx) around Europe’s coasts than all of Europe’s cars MULTIPLIED BY TEN (10). (That’s the EU plus Norway, Iceland, Montenegro, Greenland, etc.) Like, what?

Cruise ship pollution is off the charts. Research by UK environmental groups shows that a single cruise ship might emit as much pollution as 700 trucks, and the same particulate matter as a million cars.

But cruise ships were supposed to be safe! — from guilt, noise and, dare I say it, pollution — secular cloisters in which to hide away, immune to the goings-on of the big bad world and the angst that is a by-product of being alive — where you can tuck into a bottomless shrimp buffet while floating on the serene azure, without a care in the world. Well, not so.

Firstly, they run either diesel engines or gas turbines, or both. They also frequently burn fuel oil, because it’s comparatively cheap, which contains 2,000 times as much SOx as regular diesel. To be clear, SOx is carcinogenic, which is Ancient Greek for ‘really bad’.

Often, they run their engines in-harbour to avoid paying shore-side taxes on electricity, thereby producing a smorgasbord of air pollutants simply by sitting still. Burning diesel fuel in the quantities they do, within range of pedestrianised harbours, emits dangerous levels of nitrogen oxide, which has been linked to lung cancer which, again, carcinogens = very bad.

It also produces sulphur which, if you mix it with water and air, makes sulphuric acid — bad — acid rain — bad. Why bad? Because it kills fish, coral, trees, dolphins… Basically, it harms just about anything that you can picture David Attenborough posing for a selfie with.

Cleaner fuel is more expensive, so cruise lines cheat. Like when you type “Motherlode” into Sims, except it’s in real life instead. They use ‘scrubbers’ to wash the fuel, so that it passes regulations. While this does mean that the new, cleaner fuel meets environmental standards, the ships in question are using ‘open loop scrubbers’, which discharge the pollutant waste (i.e., the muck they scrubbed off the dirty fuel) directly into the ocean, immediately after wiping it off the original fuel, which is like wiping your bum with toilet paper, tearing up that toilet paper, and sprinkling it like brown confetti on your vegetarian lasagne.

In other words, it does precisely jack-all to reduce the pollutant aspect of a cruise liner. Quite rightly, there has been a coordinated, international backlash against the use of these scrubbers in recent months.

An alternative is using ‘closed loop scrubbers’, which would reduce cruise ship pollution significantly. They store the waste materials for treatment on land. If they do reach land, these substances are required, by law, to be disposed of only in specialist facilities, which is an indicator of how potent these substances are.

As a result, several countries, including Norway, Ireland, Russia, Singapore and China have banned the use of scrubbers in their national waters, over fears of dangerous pollution. But international rules are not strictly enforced.

When it comes to regulating the shipping industry, European law is hazy and fragmented. This means lots of companies just get away with it. Ironically, the US coast is significantly more regulated. Its entire coastline is covered in sulphur emission controls, whereas in Europe it is only the North and Baltic Seas which enjoy the same protections.

Well, yes. The people love to cruise. Last year, over 26 million passengers set sail. Passengers require sustenance (read: bottomless shrimp). Erm, alarm bells: that’s a heck ton of shrimp buffets needed to keep them all fed.

What’s more, projections show those numbers increasing. The setup of ‘budget’ cruise liners opened the market to swathes of lower- and middle-income families and couples. With Princess Cruises, you can book 7 nights hopping from one Caribbean dreamland to another for just $509. That’s not an ad.

Granted, though, that is incredibly cheap. So who picks up the bill? You guessed it — the oceans and skies. There are also sacrifices made by unwitting passengers, but more on that later.

With ever more passengers to take on board, the ships are getting bigger and bigger, and more and more polluting, to match the numbers.

A virtual tour of the Symphony of Seas is like a rollercoaster ride in its own right. This sea giant, launched in 2018, is the length of 30 double-decker buses — a sixth longer than The Shard. Its signature feature, an open-air garden aptly named Central Park, required extensive clay engineering. The ship is manned by a crew of 2,200. It is much, much bigger than the Titanic.

Where else can you surf on 30,000 gallons of highly chlorinated fake seawater water 150 feet above the actual sea, watch a West End-sized musical theatre production, play glow-in-the-dark laser tag and go ice skating, all while travelling at moderate speed in the Caribbean?

A robot will make and serve you cocktails. And then you can go zip-lining (at moderate speed).

Incidentally, it is also operated by Royal Caribbean, which does not install automatic man-overboard systems. These use motion detecting equipment to alert the bridge as soon as someone goes over the rails. Opting for the analogue approach — the “well, someone’s bound to hear him” approach — leads to incidents like this, which are actually very common.

Guess how many people have gone overboard from cruise ships since 2000?About 350.

How many get rescued? Around 20%.

It might not be the first thing you think of, but 3,000 people produce almost 800 cubic metres in just one week. And there’s a bunch of other nasty shit as well. Here it is, broken down for you:

Graywater: This is non-biological waste fluid from kitchens, sinks, showers and cleaning. Not the worst, but certainly quite icky.
Blackwater: This is the actual human waste. Given the quantity of shrimp consumed per day on an average cruise liner, this is very icky.
Solid waste: These are the kind of items you might try to recycle at home, but which are typically incinerated on a cruise ship — cardboard, plastics, cans and glass. Where does the incineration ash go? Oh yeah, into the ocean.

There are also various hazardous wastes produced by on-board activities like photo processing, equipment cleaning and dry cleaning. Finally, there is bilge water and ballast water, both of which contain pollutants of varying levels of toxicity.

Waste is supposed to be treated — separated and sterilised — before being incinerated (if it’s solid) or put into the ocean (if it’s liquid). The only problem is, obviously, these cruise liners are operated by corporations which are owned by people, who want to make as much money as possible. And presumably “whoops, I dropped it” is cheaper than “hey, let’s make sure separate and sterilise all this waste”.

Several cruise lines have been charged with releasing thousands of gallons of oily waste or graywater straight into the ocean.

The European countries most heavily impacted by this, as you might have guessed, are Spain, Italy and Greece. Hey, who doesn’t love a soupçon of Metaxa at sunset, off the Mediterranean coast, while basking in a hot tub on top of a GIANT SULPHUR DIOXIDE MACHINE?

Also predictably, the three port cities which bear the brunt of this air pollution are Barcelona (Spain), Palma de Mallorca (Spain) and Venice (Italy). So this is why your sangria tastes dusty.

Ambient air pollution — a large portion of which is cruise ship pollution — shaves two years off the life expectancy of your average European.

Your carbon footprint approximately triples while cruising. Not only this — the air you breathe on deck might be as bad as in the world’s most polluted cities.

It is not uncommon for cruise ships to fail sanitation inspections. In one example, which occurred on July 18, 2019, United States Public Health gave the Carnival Fantasy a score of just 77 — the lowest score in its already patchy 30 year history.

(Anything below 86 is deemed ‘unsatisfactory’)

The report found a mysterious brown fluid running from the showers to the ship’s medical facility; high levels of chlorine in the ship’s recreational water facilities; bagels and bread covered in flies in the salad bar; improperly sanitised food equipment; and something they called a ‘visible film on top of the water’ of the main swimming pool.

The ship also failed to comply with protocols relating to the containment of gastroenteritis.

Carnival Cruise Line has a dark reputation when it comes to failing sanitation inspections. Its ships Liberty, Vista, Breeze and Triumph have all been found deficient on various counts in recent years. The name ‘Triumph’ definitely seems misplaced. Maybe they will steer away from such grandiose nomenclature in the future.

These “fun ships” — affordable, for the masses — belong to a company which has a shaky history with the law. It has racked up fines of $60 million for conspiracy and obstruction of justice, violating environmental laws (excessive air and water pollution) and lying to the US Coast Guard about secretly discharging huge amounts of oil (as well as waste and plastics) directly into the ocean.

For the sake of posterity, it is also important to note that cruise ships have a plethora of other unsavoury crosses to bear. Reported incidents include the blatant flouting of environmental laws; booze-fuelled violent brawls resulting in severe injuries; more than 500 sexual assaults on women and girls on Royal Caribbean ships since 2006; numerous large on-board blazes; and finally, titans of the ocean deliberately ignoring severe weather warnings, and consequently losing control in narrow straits.

Cruise companies are notorious for boycotting destinations that raise port charges. In 2004, Antigua and Barbuda raised it to $2.50 per head, which is still very low. The Florida-Caribbean Cruise Associations’ members threatened to boycott the destination and, as a result, the ports were forced to back down. This is flagrant corporate bullying.

Such companies also invest heavily in the ports they stop at, in order to reduce costs. For example, Royal Caribbean co-owns Belize’s Fort Street Tourism Village — while this cost them $18 million, it didn’t take long to make this money back on port charges.

A large proportion of cruise ships’ housekeeping staff rely on tips for 95% of their income. How? Cruise lines dodge labour laws by incorporating their companies in foreign countries. Liberia, Panama and Bermuda all have incredibly low minimum wages, meaning Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruises can all get away with paying their staff next to nothing. They also avoid corporate income tax this way.

As Ross Klein, in his book Cruise Ship Squeeze, writes: “Carnival will earn $3 billion and they’ll pay no corporate income tax at all […] That’s $3 billion net profit. Why would they would they want pay their workers a little extra money and make only $2.9 or $2.8 billion?” So, there’s that.

The technology exists today to clean up the world’s cruise ships.

In-port emissions can be cut if taxes are introduced on marine fossil fuels. At present, shore-side electricity falls under an EU directive which makes it cheaper for ships to burn their own fuel for electricity. Their fuel is dirty. Therefore, incentivising cruise liners to plug into shore-side infrastructure might be a good start.

Battery technology is also coming on leaps and bounds, and could drastically change the way supertankers and cruise ships are powered. Batteries can already provide enough power to get smaller ships from A to B.

Other sources of energy, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) and hydrogen could also be instrumental in the shift towards cleaner ocean-going vessels. Retrofitting, retrofitting, retrofitting.

Many European cities are banning diesel vehicles. Great! Some countries are banning the production of diesel vehicles. Even better. But the authorities of many coastal cities are letting cruise companies run riot in their seas. They need to band together and fight for each other. For this to happen soon, they need public and governmental support.

Faig Abbasov, shipping policy manager at Transport & Environment, argues that decisions need to be made on a supranational, intergovernmental basis if any real progress is to be made. In other words, mandate zero emission standards. Work together!

Our governments, at least, to a degree, reflect us. So get out there. Share your arguments (and this article) — go on a cycle trip — take a walking holiday. Hey, ferries are basically non-luxury luxury cruise ships anyway!


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Bruno Cooke

Written by

UK author/journalist writing about long distance cycle trips, cultural differences and global politics. Visit

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Bruno Cooke

Written by

UK author/journalist writing about long distance cycle trips, cultural differences and global politics. Visit

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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