Can Cruise Ships Dump Garbage in the Ocean?

Can Cruise Ships Dump Garbage in the Ocean?

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With hundreds of staff and thousands of passengers, cruise ships produce enormous amounts of garbage. And it all has to go somewhere, which leaves some people wondering, are cruise ships allowed to dump trash in the ocean? 

In fact, many cruise ship companies, from Princess Cruise Lines to Royal Caribbean Cruises, have been caught dumping garbage into the ocean. While it is against US and international maritime law to release garbage directly into the water, many cruise ships have done it anyway, and some have faced fines as a result. But that’s not stopping massive companies with huge profits margins from polluting the planet. And much of the sewage and wastewater pollution from cruise ships is perfectly legal, leading to toxic algae blooms, dead zones and toxic waterbodies around the world. Cruise ship trash dumping is a crisis across the world’s oceans, causing wildlife to die and hurting coastal communities. 

We’ve compiled a few commonly asked questions about cruise ship waste disposal and trash dumping to provide more information on how these cruise lines pollute the planet. 

Do cruise ships dump plastic at sea?

Yes, many cruise ships dump plastic at sea. It’s illegal according to U.S. and international maritime law, but many companies have proven they don’t care, and have been caught illegally spewing plastic into the sea. Carnival Cruise Lines was found dumping food mixed with plastic waste into the waters of the Bahamas. And in 2019, Royal Caribbean was fined $20 million for its illegal plastic disposal methods. The cruise industry has been accused of having some of the worst waste management practices worldwide, and while the law says cruise ships have to offload plastic at a port, we know that many are doing just the opposite. 

Can cruise ships dump waste at sea?

Yes. It’s quite legal to dump sewage and food waste into the sea. U.S. law requires cruise ships to treat waste within about 3.5 miles of shore—but beyond that, there are no restrictions on dumping polluted sewage and graywater. Researchers have estimated that over a billion gallons of sludge made from excrement and food scraps are released into the ocean every year by cruise lines. 

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The sewage is not just human waste, but also contains chemicals, pharmaceuticals, bacteria, viruses, and heavy metals that are not naturally present in the ocean. Cruise ships don’t have the resources or the facilities to filter out many of these toxic substances. They end up in the habitats of many coastal animals from otters to dolphins to whales, leading to reproductive problems, illness and population decline. 

Food waste has also been linked to “dead zones” in the ocean: areas with a lack of oxygen in the water due to rampant algae growth, which can be toxic to fish, turtles, birds, dolphins, and more. Around 30% of food on cruise ships is disposed of as “fish food,” or liquified human food mixed with water. But the products we eat, from meat to dairy, often contain pesticides, chemicals, and growth hormones that aren’t natural for aquatic wildlife—let alone that they aren’t proper food for marine life. As a result, the liquified food waste can accumulate contaminants in animals at the bottom of the food chain, even affecting predators and other wildlife further up the food chain. 

Do cruise ships cause air pollution?

Cruise ships also emit large amounts of greenhouse gases and toxic air pollution. Every single part of the ship, from the spas to the restaurants to the casinos, runs on massive diesel generators that belch carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and other toxic pollutants into the air. Research has found that traveling on a cruise ship emits up to four times more CO2 as would traveling on a plane. And they emit far more sulfur and nitrogen oxides than other sources of travel and vacation, contributing to acid rain and higher rates of cancer. 

Can cruise ships damage coastal communities?

Rather than bolstering coastal communities through increased tourism and revenue, cruise ship traffic often hurts them. First, cruise ships can destroy coral reefs, which are fundamental to the livelihoods of many coastal communities. In George Town, Grand Cayman, three hundred acres of coral were lost to cruise ships anchors! A cruise in Cancún, Mexico, destroyed 80 percent of the coral in a beautiful national park after it ran aground. And in 2017, one of Indonesia’s main coral reefs was devastated by a cruise ship that crushed a coral reef near the Raja Ampat islands. 

But hundreds of millions of people worldwide depend on coral reefs for their lives and livelihoods. They protect settlements from storms, natural disasters, and floods, and create concentrations of wildlife and fish that can support an entire industry. As climate chaos already threatens these communities with ocean acidification and sea-level rise, cruise ships continue to smash through coral and endanger the reefs upon which people depend. 

Cruise ships also force many coastal communities to re-orient towards tourism, regardless of culture or history. And these communities are typically taken over by large corporations looking to capitalize on their beauty. Small, local business owners are squashed by large multinational corporations that offer everything from luxury hotels to excursions. Local formerly-successful business owners must adapt and re-inventing themselves as tourist-friendly options instead of maintaining traditional shops that exude culture. And in many cases, small business owners end up giving the cruise industry a cut of their business, just to have cruise passengers utilize their services. 

Cruise ships, plastic, and pollution

To be perfectly honest, cruise ships hurt the environment. All cruises are impacting our planet in one way or another. Of course, there are bad actors out there that are truly decimating our oceans by illegally dumping plastic waste, destroying coral, and filling our oceans with toxic waste. But the fact remains that all cruise ships impact the planet negatively. There is no such thing as a truly eco-friendly cruise, and even ones that are concerned with the environment are making minimal efforts at best.  

But some companies do a better job at managing their waste and minimizing their impacts on coastal communities. Friends of the Earth has compiled a Cruise Ship Report Card to help you determine which cruise lines are better for people and the planet, and which we could really use your help giving a BIG nudge to clean up their act. When you sign up to receive emails from Friends of the Earth, you can join other activists and work alongside Friends of the Earth to push for change. 

If that doesn’t pique your interest the best thing you can do is choose a different way to travel. Visit our list of green travel options to learn about the best ways to vacation while helping preserve the environment! 

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