Cruise Ships’ Environmental Impact

Cruise Ships’ Environmental Impact

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Cruise ships are a catastrophe for the environment — and that’s not an overstatement. They dump toxic waste into our waters, fill the planet with carbon dioxide, and kill marine wildlife. Cruise ships’ environmental impact is never ending, and they continue to get bigger. They once were small ships, around 30,000 tons. Now, corporations are building billion-dollar cruise ships to hold more than 9,000 people. They’re doing everything they can to pack these floating cities full of tourists while polluting everything in their path. 

Environmental Impact of Top Cruise Lines

Unfortunately, everything that cruise ships come in contact with are likely to be harmed along their journey. The air, water, fragile habitats, coastal communities, and wildlife are all affected. But most governments have refused to take actions to actually regulate the cruise industry and buried their heads in the sand to ignore the ongoing damage to the environment and communities. 

Friends of the Earth works diligently to collect vital information about cruises to help the public understand their impacts. In our Cruise Ship Report Card we assess the largest cruise lines and their ships. 

And because we know that cruise ship pollution is toxic throughout the entire industry, we thought we’d push away from the traditional statistics and provide more specifics about each of the top cruise lines. 

Carnival Corporation Environmental Impact

Carnival Corporation is the biggest cruise company in the world with 10 cruise lines and is the most notorious cruise company for their environmental impacts. They have a long history of violating environmental regulations and have paid millions of dollars in fines — instead of cleaning up their act.

They’ve been charged with the following:

  • Dumping food mixed with plastic waste in Bahamian waters
  • Falsifying records of environmental compliance plans
  • Illegally releasing over 500,000 gallons of sewage and 11,000 gallons of food waste globally
  • Illegally discharging oily waste off the coast of England
  • Illegally dumping thousands of gallons of wastewater into Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska

Carnival was hit with a $40 million fine for illegal waste disposal and was put on federal criminal probation in 2017. During their five-year probationary period an independent court-ordered monitor was required to examine its ships. During the first year an inspector found over 800 violations. A year later, Carnival had to pay another $20 million for environmental violations. And in January 2022, it paid another $1 million for failing to implement court ordered monitoring programs to attempt to ensure it doesn’t illegally pollute in the future.

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Disney Cruise Lines Environmental Impact

Of the top cruise lines, Disney is open and transparent about their environmental impacts. Disney ships utilize fuel with a 0.1% sulfur content which is key to reducing climate-harming emissions. But Disney isn’t perfect. They like to provide their vacationers with a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience, including going to untouched areas of the planet and to create a “private island” experience. And however idyllic that sounds, there’s an environmental price to pay. 

Disney is working on a massive cruise ship port in the Bahamas at Lighthouse Point. This port is opposed by community groups and will cause harm to coral reefs and migratory patterns of marine wildlife. The Bahamian Island of Eleuthera is known for its clear blue waters, sandy beaches, lemon sharks, and sea turtles. It also includes four endemic plant species and over 200 bird species. But Disney’s planned Lighthouse Point port would bring a million visitors to this untouched region, adding noise, water, and air pollution to this habitat.

Royal Caribbean Environmental Impact

Royal Caribbean’s pollution is second only to Carnival Corporation when it comes to the criminal fines they’ve had to pay. They were forced to pay $18 million in fines for 21 federal felonies in 1999 due to dumping hazardous chemicals and waste oil in coastal waters. They then lied to the U.S. Coast Guard and Justice Department by falsifying oil logs to cover up their crimes. 

Royal Caribbean has 25 ships in its fleet and 22 of them utilize scrubbers to get around community and climate-harming emissions. Scrubbers are used to “clean” smokestacks from the dirty fuel they use and reduce air pollution. But the scrubbers convert air pollution into water pollution because the toxic byproducts from the scrubber systems are discharged into the seas. 

At the end of 2021, Royal Caribbean announced “Destination Net Zero” to get ahead of the talks on green travel. But its targets toward sustainability are decades away and focus on carbon offsets instead of true sustainable measures. It will likely be too little too late.  

MSC Cruise Environmental Impact

MSC Cruises is not an environmentally friendly cruise option either. In fact, they claim a range of environmental initiatives, but only do so halfheartedly. 

Currently MSC Cruises has 19 ships in their fleet, but: 

  • only 12 have installed advanced sewage treatment systems
  • Only 8 have shoreside plug-in capability
  • Only 6 travel to ports with shoreside power
  • And 15 utilize scrubbers that convert air pollution into water pollution

It’s clear that MSC Cruises has a long way to go to minimize their environmental footprint and truly be a champion for the environment. 

Cruise Companies Greenwashing 

We’re at a pivotal point for our planet. We’re less than a decade away from climate catastrophe if something isn’t done soon. And mega corporations like these cruise industry giants could play a role in cutting down pollution. But instead of making true commitments and steps in the right direction, they use tricky marketing tactics to make you think you’re taking a “green vacation” when in reality you’re being complicit with their pollution and harm to the planet — including coastal communities. 

Don’t be fooled. Ships are still burning heavy fuel. Ships are still dumping waste into waters. Ships are still refusing to fully convert to truly green initiatives like shorepower. Until the cruise industry cleans up its act, you can unfortunately count on them to continue having a negative impact on the environment. 

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