Don't Bother With Cruise Ships

Public Domain. MaxPixel

The 2019 Cruise Ship Report Card reveals what a dirty, harmful industry cruising is.

You might want to think twice before booking a cruise vacation for next winter. While cruise ships might seem like a fun and innocuous way of seeing the world, they are in fact one of the most damaging forms of travel. For starters, a person on a seven-day cruise produces emissions equivalent to 18 days on land. But there are other worrisome factors at play.

Some of these are highlighted in the latest Cruise Ship Report Card, issued annually by Friends of the Earth (FOE). The environmental organization analyzes and ranks 16 cruise ship companies in order from best to worst. (Spoiler alert: Disney got A-, Carnival got F.) The categories it compares are sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, transparency, and criminal violations.

As explained in a detailed Vox article last fall, cruise ships are supposed to treat all sewage by incinerating solid waste and releasing sterilized liquid waste into the ocean. But multiple cruise lines have been charged with discharging "oily waste" and untreated graywater (everything but raw sewage) into the ocean. FOE gave Costa, Crystal, and Carnival Cruise Lines all Fs for their sewage handling.

Air pollution is a concern because the huge ships use diesel engines, gas turbines, or both. Diesel produces particulate matter and nitrogen oxide, linked to respiratory disease and lung cancer. It also forms sulfuric acid, which is in acid rain and contributes to deforestation, destruction of marine life, and corrosion of building materials. The use of 'scrubbers' as a solution to this problem wasn't adequate for FOE's standards, as "the significant majority of scrubbers in use by the cruise industry simply convert air pollution emissions into water pollution through their scrubber wastewater discharges."

As for the remaining criteria, the Water Quality Compliance grade was based on ships going to Alaska, and whether they met the state's strong water quality standards. Transparency was measured by a company's willingness to answer FOE's questions about environmental practices; and criminal violations applied to seven cruise lines owned by Carnival, all of which "committed criminal environmental violations in 2017 and 2018 while on federal criminal probation in the U.S. for violations dating back to 2005."

The Report Card does not wade into the notorious ethics of cruise ships, and the way they underpay and overwork staff, take advantage of underprivileged port communities in developing nations, fail to account for missing people, and generate obscene amounts of food waste. But it certainly paints a dismal picture of an industry that any eco-conscious traveler should avoid.