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Water & Sanitation

The perils of cruise ships as told by Titanic

Meghan Werft

From the tip of the Norwegian fjordlands down to the bottom of Patagonia in South America, cruises can take you to nearly every coast in the world. You can board a ship, relax in a hotel room on said ship and travel to remote tropical locations. There’s even sales and promotions for cruises right now for Labor Day in the US.

But before you “jump ship” and buy that great all-inclusive package for a cruise to the Caribbean, take a moment to consider how much that cruise really costs.

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So here’s the good, the bad and the ugly behind taking a cruise as told by Titanic. Because what better way to learn about the perils of cruise ships than from one of the most viewed movies of all time, a tragic love story where thousands die.

The Bad–cruise ships can be dangerous.

While it’s hard to find accurate data for the global impact of cruise ships, it’s not hard to find headlines on cruise ship accidents.

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Over 400 people died on a pleasure cruise on the Yangtze River in China only two months ago.

Passengers were stranded and stuck on ships without access to sanitation and had to ration food when a cruise ship near San Diego had engine fires in 2011.

Somali pirates attacked a ship in 2005, shooting missiles and machine guns at a smaller cruise ship off the coast of Somalia.

So there’s some safety concerns… and the root of this issue is that there is little accountability for cruise ships when it comes to anything really.

Safety and health are the most monitored aspects of cruises and even for these categories there is no central agency that keeps records of cruise ship health, safety and environmental records.

That’s not to say that some cruises do not have better track records in these areas than others. But because there isn’t centralized data or regulations across the world, it’s hard to be certain.

The Ugly–pollution.

Here we get into the environmental, economic and cultural impact of cruises.

Let’s start with sewage disposal, because this is pretty ugly.

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Cruise ships are currently regulated only when they’re close to land. Ports can hold companies and ships responsible for infractions once they’re docked but it’s a different story when cruise ships are out on the open ocean.

One billion gallons of sewage dumps into the ocean each year from cruise ships.

According to the US EPA, a cruise ship with 3,000 passengers produces 21,000 gallons of sewage waste a day.

Most of this sewage is partly treated, but not as well as you might think. Treating sewage is a complex process. So, it’s not surprising that few cruise ships dispose of sewage in the most environmentally friendly way.

Cruise ships also produce bilge water (water combined with grease, oil and other contaminants from ship engines) and graywater (water from soapy showers, sinks, kitchens) which disposes into the ocean.

It’s hard to enforce anything in international waters. But technology for properly treating sewage on large cruise ships exists and if consumers demand that standards be put in place, companies will be forced to adopt better practices.

Countries like the US have passed laws creating an umbrella for cruise ship regulations such as the Clean Cruise Ship Act of 2013. But raw sewage is still fine to dispose of and air pollution is not regulated past three miles off-shore.

Soooo, yeah.

More Ugly–air pollution.

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The amount of people going on cruises around the world is the size of a mid-level economy.

One cruise ship can hold over 8,000 people.

30 million people go on cruises each year. That’s more people than Greece, Cuba and Switzerland combined. And roughly the same population as Canada.

It takes a lot to power a city and even more to power a country. Cruise ships are no exception. The cruise ship industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with the power and technology to lower carbon emissions and decrease air pollution. If we can get cities and countries to commit to lowering carbon emissions can’t we get cruise ships to adopt these policies too?

It seems easier to ask one ship to control the carbon footprint of 8,000 people over a week than  an entire city of millions indefinitely..

On a cruise, you can find all the activities that a city in a developed country offers and more, from karaoke and live entertainment to artificial rock-climbing and swimming in a pool. And these activities plus powering an enormous ship requires A LOT of energy.

Engines that power cruise ships primarily rely on fossil fuels. Cruise ships emit greenhouse gases like CO2 which causes an increase in global temperatures, sulfur and nitrogen oxides that cause acid rain.

Cruise ships need to have carbon emission limitations just like countries and cities if the world to achieve clean air and water.

The third and final Uglyexploitation of poor countries.

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Cruise ships visit extremely fragile ecosystems all over the world. Who doesn’t want to get up close and personal with glaciers in Alaska before they disappear? A cruise can take you there. Or travel to remote destinations that you can only reach by boat like tropical islands along the equator?

This is a form of cultural invasion. Cruise ships stop at these locations for a day or two and passengers often have little or no cultural awareness of the destination. Cruises can take steps to address this.

Cruises should be treated like cities. They need to adopt good governance to promote cultural awareness of the places they visit. A cruise can be fun, while also having aspects of education on the cultures and states of economy that the ship visits.

This can happen in the form of personal responsibility, too. If you take a cruise to Jamaica, take the time to learn about some of the struggles of the economy and what issues local residents are dealing with.

Cruises can create cycles of poverty when visiting poor coastal regions because local residents may have no other job infrastructure than the tourism industry.

By investing in dynamic job markets to create strong economies, poor countries can move away from reliance on tourists to power economies.

The Good!

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I’m not saying don’t go on that cruise you’re dreaming of taking instead of going home for the holidays. Instead take a look at some cruiselines who make efforts to cut carbon and have scrubbers installed to reduce sulfur emissions, use biodegradable cleaning and bathroom products, and properly treat sewage–like Holland America Cruises.

Some cruise ships have even installed solar power panels. Hey, if you’re going to be cruising along a tropical destination that gets more sunlight than anywhere else in the world, it’s not a bad idea to invest in solar energy.

Also taking a trip on a smaller cruise ship can have a big impact and a much lower carbon footprint. Here’s a few you can check out.

Cruise ships have been taking measures to become more eco-friendly but it’s vital that regulations and requirements are placed at an international level.

Companies of cruise ships need to be put the to same standards for carbon emissions, sewage treatment as countries, and also play their part in growing economies in the developing countries they visit.

Starting September 25th, world leaders will come together and pledge to achieve the Global Goals at the UN Sustainable Development Summit. If leading countries can make this commitment there’s no reason cruise ships should not take action too. No country, company or ship should slip through the cracks when it comes to taking action to end global poverty.

So just like Rose let go of Jack in Titanic… it’s time to let go of the way cruise ships run and start holding them accountable for their global impact.

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Go to TAKE ACTION NOW  to make sanitation a priority for world leaders in Indonesia. As sanitation improves worldwide, the closer the world will be to ending poverty!