Here’s What Happens To Sewage On Cruise Lines

Sewage treatment

Cruise ships released over one billion gallons of sewage into the ocean in 2014, according to a new report from Friends of the Earth.

The analysis, which worked off of federal data, did show that some of the 16 cruise lines assessed are slowly becoming more environmentally friendly. But according to the press release from environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE), over 40 percent of the 167 ships in operation still operate using waste treatment technology that’s more than 35 years old. “Such antiquated treatment systems leave harmful levels of fecal matter, bacteria, heavy metals and other contaminants in the water,” FOE noted.

Federal law requires that cruise ships only dump treated wastewater if they are within three nautical miles of shore. But beyond that point, it’s essentially a free-for-all.

FOE also cites data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which shows “an average cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew produces about 21,000 gallons of sewage a day — enough to fill 10 backyard swimming pools in a week. That adds up to more than one billion gallons a year for the industry.” FOE also acknowledges this is likely “a conservative estimate,” because newer ships can carry up to 8,000 passengers and crew members, and because their analysis does not cover all ships and fleets worldwide.

“This is an industry worth billions of dollars that could install the most advanced sewage treatment and air pollution reduction technology available,” said Marcie Keever, the oceans and vessels program director at FOE. “We’re encouraged that some cruise lines are taking incremental steps to improve their performance, but the entire industry must stop hiding behind weak regulations and take action to make sure the oceans their ships travel remain as clear as the photos in cruise brochures.”

The centerpiece of FOE’s analysis was their Cruise Ship Report Card, which has come out every year since 2009. Up through 2013, the report card had graded the cruise lines on three metrics: the quality of their sewage treatment technology, how much they reduce their air pollution through the use of cleaner fuels and plugging into onshore power, and how well they comply with water quality standards — especially those established by the State of Alaska to protect its coasts.

But for the 2014 report, all 16 cruise lines apparently refused to respond to FOE’s request for information on their pollution reduction efforts — forcing the group to rely on federal data. This also inspired FOE to add a fourth transparency metric to the report card, for which all 16 cruise lines received an “F.”

Outside of the transparency issue, Disney Cruise Lines is apparently the most environmentally friendly, scoring an A for sewage treatment, a B- for air pollution reduction, and an A for water quality compliance. Carnival, by contrast, scored an A on water quality compliance, but an F on sewage treatment and a D on air pollution.

According to FOE, data from EPA also shows that “each day an average cruise ship is at sea it emits more sulfur dioxide than 13 million cars and more soot than one million cars.” But new fuel standards will kick in next year for both the United States and Canada, which should reduce sulfur emissions from each ship by 97 percent, and cut the emissions of soot by 85 percent.

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