Despite the bad rap, cruise lines continue to make important strides to improve their environmental policies -- some lines more extensively than others. Whereas recycling, incinerating and waste-processing were cutting edge on cruise ships a decade ago, such processes today are basic and expected.
Green technologies are being incorporated into newly built ships -- think solar panels, advances in hull design that let ships cut through the water more efficiently, cooking oil conversion systems and energy-efficient appliances. Older ships that aren't as green are often involved in other environmental practices, including tweaking arrival and departure times at ports to save fuel and reduce noise pollution. And some cruise lines collaborate with nonprofit organizations and government agencies to collect data about the ocean's health and climate changes.
Here is a summary of the latest green practices of the major mainstream and luxury cruise lines:
Carnival Cruise Lines
Onboard Policies: Carnival recycles, incinerates or offloads a multitude of materials (plastic, glass, aluminum, scrap metal, cooking oil, petroleum oil, toner cartridges, electronics, refrigerants and photo processing liquids) from its ships for disposal on land. Ships process and incinerate solid waste onboard whenever possible or send it to an approved shoreside facility for treatment, recycling or disposal. Even oily bilge water is subjected to its own three-step engineering process. Furniture, mattresses, linens, small appliances, kitchenware, clothing and nearly two dozen other items are donated to charities instead of sent to landfills.
Carnival Inspiration and Carnival Miracle use shore-power technologies while in port in Long Beach, California. Rather than idle in port, which wastes fuel and creates air and noise pollution, the ships plug into electrical power at port, allowing them to switch off internal power sources.
Conscious Crew: All Carnival Cruise Lines employees attend a training course on shipboard waste management. The cruise line also provides specialized or advanced training to all shipboard and relevant shoreside employees. All ships have environmental officers.
Special Projects/Awards: Through an alliance with the International SeaKeepers Society, Carnival has installed scientific devices on four ships (Triumph, Legend, Miracle and Spirit) to monitor ocean water quality and other climatic info. Environmental groups, governmental agencies and universities receive the data via satellite. It aids them in assessing ocean pollution, climate change and weather patterns. The line also participates in beach cleanups and other community programs through its affiliation with the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association.
Green Passengers: Specially marked containers are scattered throughout each ship in the fleet to encourage cruisers to recycle. Designated bins collect food, glass, aluminum and plastic products; recycling bins are also located in steward stations, galley and crew areas, room service pantries and bar pantries.
Onboard Policies: Costa participates in the European Commission co-funded Sustainable Cruise project to reduce and recycle solid waste on cruise ships and reuse or properly dispose of residual matter. Technologically advanced equipment treats and processes 100 percent of all onboard solid waste, including paper, plastic, lead batteries, glass, ceramics and metal recycled in ports. Food waste is composted.
Conscious Crew: Costa's Environmental Compliance Department -- and a dedicated Environmental Officer aboard each ship -- ensures all regulations are obeyed and handles any issues that arise. Crewmembers receive training focused on raising awareness of the potential impact of onboard practices; those with specific responsibilities related to green cruising also attend higher-level courses.
Special Projects/Awards: Costa was the first cruise line to be awarded a Green Star notation (in 2005) for its entire fleet by RINA, Italy's Shipping Classification and Certification Agency. Costa is also RINA-certified with BEST 4, Business Excellence Sustainable Task, voluntary certifications in social accountability, environmental protection and workplace health safety and quality. Costa has been recognized for its energy efficiency, water conservation and carbon conservation programs, as well.
Costa is currently working on the environmentally safe salvage of its beleaguered ship Concordia, which grounded and partially sank in 2012.
Green Guests: Environmental practices are included in information provided in all passenger cabins.
Onboard Policies: Crystal enforces a "nothing overboard" policy; all waste is sorted and incinerated onboard, recycled or disposed of on shore. The cruise line revamped its purchasing policy to buy more items in bulk (and only from vendors that also practice sustainability), minimizing packaging waste. Other recent initiatives include installation of low-flow showers, energy-efficient one-touch lighting in all cabins, new water filtration systems in specialty restaurants and more eco-friendly dry-cleaning.
Conscious Crew: All crew members participate in mandatory training on environmental practices and are invited to join additional optional environmental learning programs.
Special Projects/Awards: Crystal won the Cruise Ship Environmental Award from the San Francisco cruise port in 2005 and 2011; the port authorities in Stockholm and Venice have recognized the line for its environmentalism, too. Crystal's Visions Enrichment Program includes lectures on conservation from such experts as conservation biologist Bill Toone and Icelandic geologist Jon Sigurdsson. The cruise line also collects unused toiletries, which are recycled, sterilized and transformed into new products that are distributed to impoverished nations.
Green Passengers: Crystal's "You Care, We Care" voluntourism program allows cruisers and crew to participate in community-based conservation projects in destinations the ships visit, for no additional cost to passengers. Projects have included restoration of native foliage in New Zealand, collaboration with animal rescue organizations in Europe, volunteer work at an Alaskan salmon hatchery, restoration of a hurricane-ravished garden in St. Maarten and park cleanups in Mexico.
Onboard Policies: Special compacters process garbage; the one on Queen Mary 2 is four decks high.
Conscious Crew: The line apprises all crew of strict environmental policies when they join or return to a ship. This training includes the way in which waste is separated, the reasons why waste is separated, and the importance of following and maintaining these strict protocols.
Special Projects/Awards: Cunard only purchases seafood from sustainable sources. The line is also working to reduce air emissions by implementing various fuel efficiency measures, including improved hull coating, low energy lamps, increased recirculation of heat and more efficient air conditioning. On Queen Elizabeth, twilight sensors will switch deck lighting off at dawn (and on again at dusk).
Green Passengers: The Daily Program, distributed to every guest's stateroom, explains the ship's disposal and recycling procedures, though Cunard staff further separates waste in the pantries. During some voyages, the Environmental Officer will appear as a guest on the morning TV show to further discuss and explain what the company does to protect the environment.
Disney Cruise Line
Onboard Policies: More than 900 tons of metal, glass, plastic and paper -- approximately 45 percent of all solid waste generated onboard Disney ships -- are processed for recycling or reuse each year. Additionally, 12,000 pounds of used cooking oil from shipboard galleys is offloaded and recycled each week, with 60 percent of the oil used to create biodiesel fuel for a fleet of vehicles in the Bahamas.
Additional efforts focus on energy- and water-saving efforts and fuel efficiency. Smart technology self-adjusts temperatures and lighting throughout the ships for optimized energy efficiency. Excess heat generated in the ships' engine boilers is rerouted to power evaporators that help turn sea water into drinkable water. Even the condensation from air-conditioning units is reclaimed and reused to wash the decks.
Conscious Crew: All four ships have onboard environmental officers who oversee shipboard recycling, waste minimization and water reclamation efforts, particularly on Disney's private island, Castaway Cay, in the Bahamas. The officers also supervise shipboard environmental education classes for crew.
Special Projects/Awards: Disney was the first passenger cruise line to use an innovative, non-toxic hull coating to increase fuel efficiency. The coating on all four Disney Cruise Line ships reduces surface resistance in the water. All ships feature advanced wastewater purification systems. Disney brings aboard U.S. Forest Service experts onto Alaska voyages to educate passengers and crew. A special program combines scientific research and hands-on conservation to strengthen coral reef health around Castaway Cay.
Green Passengers: Disney encourages passengers and crew to take part in the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund donation program, which provides support for the study of wildlife, protection of habitats and development of community conservation and education programs in critical global ecosystems. In addition, the fund also provides special grants to connect children with nature. The fund has raised more than $20 million, supporting more than 800 wildlife projects in 112 countries worldwide. One hundred percent of funds go directly to support grant projects.
Onboard Policies: As with other lines, Holland America purifies wastewater onboard, and all ships have recycling, as well as garbage and hazardous material programs. The line donates such items as beds, furniture and unused toiletries to shelters, rather than throwing those items away. Holland America purchases in bulk with minimal packaging and has installed new appliances, such as coffee creamer dispensers, to eliminate the need for packaged items (in this case, individually sized coffee creamers). It prints all onboard materials with soy-based inks. Dry-cleaning machines that use nonhazardous detergents formulated with soy, banana and orange extracts are replacing standard equipment. Five ships have been outfitted to use shore power when available. Seafood served onboard is sustainably sourced. And in ships' medical centers, Holland America has implemented digital technology to eliminate the chemicals used by traditional X-ray machines.
Conscious Crew: Stationed on every ship, environmental officers provide environmental training to all crew and oversee shipboard compliance with environmental requirements.
Special Projects/Awards: The cruise line has been recognized by media outlets, port administrators and even the U.S. Coast Guard for its environmental practices. Holland America has received the biennial Rear Admiral William M. Benkert Environmental Protection Award in 2010 and 2012 for its outstanding achievements in marine environmental protection. The cruise line works with government agencies to test new emission-reduction technologies and water filtration systems and also has installed special computer programs that help prevent collisions with whales.
Green Passengers: Each ship's environmental officer offers environmental presentations on every cruise. On cruises to Alaska and Antarctica, enrichment speakers also deliver a variety of environmental and ecological presentations.
Onboard Policies: MSC Cruises ships are equipped with garbage incinerators, pulpers, grinders and compactors for garbage processing, as well as water treatment plants. Hazardous or dangerous garbage is collected in suitable containers. All waste is treated, including aluminum cans, which are recycled into sheet aluminum at port. There are also environmentally friendly incinerator units for both wood and paper. MSC Cruises' plastic reduction policy is based on the following actions: replacement, where feasible, of plastic containers with cardboard or glass; purchasing provisions in bulk packaging; exchanging empty containers with full ones with suppliers; and replacing small plastic consumable items with fixed ones.
Conscious Crew: Each ship has an environmental officer, and MSC also employs a shore-based environmental coordinator who's responsible for overseeing all environmental operations throughout the fleet.
Special Projects/Awards: MSC Splendida and MSC Fantasia received the prestigious "Six Golden Pearls" award from the international classification society Bureau Veritas. MSC Splendida also received the first Energy Efficient Design designation by Bureau Veritas. Most recently, MSC Preziosa received "Seven Golden Pearls" from Bureau Veritas. MSC Cruises was one of the first lines to support the "Venice Blue Flag" project, set up to control emissions of all the ships in transit between Bocca di Porto Lido and the Maritime Station of this lagoon capital.
Green Passengers: Each passenger's cruise card doubles as the on/off switch for electricity and air-conditioning in his or her stateroom; the system disables certain lights, hair dryers and air-conditioning when the cabin is unoccupied. Environmental advisories are included in in the Daily Program.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Onboard Policies: Norwegian employs a Safety and Environmental Protection Policy, which guides its actions regarding the proper disposal or re-use of waste materials, reducing its operations' impact on the environment and preventing accidental pollution. The line processes and brings ashore nearly all solid waste materials; it incinerates some waste items to reduce the volume and has a recycling rate of more than 30 percent of materials. The only solid waste discharged to sea is food waste, which the cruise line considers safe because it's biodegradable. Cooking oil is recycled in nearly every port, either by commercial vendor or, in Miami, by a farmer who converts it to bio-diesel fuel.
Every ship is equipped with an advanced wastewater treatment system that adheres to high cleanliness standards. Ships also employ the latest emulsion-breaking oily water separators, which ensure that only clean water is discharged to the sea. Additional programs are in place to reduce fuel consumption and air emissions. With each new ship, Norwegian adds state-of-the-art environmental systems, such as technologies that reduce energy consumption and advanced water treatment systems.
Conscious Crew: All crewmembers receive environmental training throughout their tenure with Norwegian. A shoreside department is devoted to environmental protection, and trained environmental officers sail onboard every Norwegian ship.
Special Projects/Awards: Norwegian is accredited to the international ISO 14001 standard for Environmental Management Systems, which recognizes that Norwegian utilizes a core set of standards to reduce environmental impact and increase operating ef?ciency. The line has received several environmental awards, including the U.S. Coast Guard's Gold 2010 William M. Benkert Marine Environmental Protection Award, the Port of Seattle's Green Gateway Award for excellent environmental stewardship, the Port of San Francisco's Cruise Ship Environmental Award and the Venice Blue Flag award for using lower sulfur fuels in the port of Venice. Norwegian is also experimenting with innovative exhaust gas scrubbers on Pride of America, designed to reduce sulfur emissions.
Green Passengers: Norwegian has partnered with NextEra Energy Resources to give passengers an opportunity to offset their carbon footprints; contributions from passengers are used to build renewable energy projects in the United States. Onboard, passengers are encouraged to recycle. The Kid's Crew teaches young cruisers about clean water and pollution prevention through the Officer Snook program; activities may include a simulated beach cleanup and an environmental poster contest.
Paul Gauguin Cruises
Onboard Policies: Recyclable waste is segregated onboard for proper disposal on shore. Paul Gauguin Cruises collects and stores all chemical and hazardous waste generated onboard for disposal with licensed contractors ashore. Waste from printer and photo copy cartridges is sent ashore for recycling, as is used cooking oil from the galleys. The cruise line attempts to reduce fuel consumption through itinerary planning and utilizing fuel that is cleaner-burning with lower sulfur content to minimize environmental impact.
Conscious Crew: Crewmembers on both ships participate regularly in environmental training and courses.
Special Projects/Awards: Paul Gauguin Cruises was the first travel company to earn the "e-Stewards Enterprise" designation for pursuing globally responsible recycling practices for its electronics. The "e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment" was created by the Basel Action Network, which developed the world's most rigorous standard for electronics recycling. Environmental advocate Jean-Michel Cousteau of the Ocean Futures Society guest hosts several sailings each year on Paul Gauguin, providing a series of lectures with videos of his work in the world's oceans; other conservation experts participate in cruises throughout the year.
Green Passengers: Passengers are provided with reusable water bottles to use throughout their voyages; this vastly reduces the amount of waste from plastic water bottles.
Onboard Policies: Princess has a "zero solid waste discharge" policy, prohibiting the disposal of unprocessed, non-biodegradable solid waste into the ocean. All solid waste -- including metal, glass and plastic -- is either incinerated onboard or offloaded for recycling or other disposal. To minimize plastics, Princess works with suppliers to replace plastic packaging with biodegradable materials and to eliminate or reduce packaging materials. All ships have onboard water treatment facilities that use bio-reactors; in addition, 11 of the 16 ships in the fleet also have advanced water treatment systems that use membrane filtration and ultraviolet light. Recyclables and hazardous waste, such as batteries, solvents and medical waste are sorted, separated and properly stored until they can be offloaded.
Conscious Crew: Princess places environmental officers onboard all of its ships, and all crew members attend mandatory environmental training.
Special Projects/Awards: Ten Princess ships are currently enabled to "plug in" to clean, local hydroelectric power when they dock in Seattle, Juneau, Los Angeles and Vancouver. In addition, Princess monitors air emissions, purchases fuel with low sulfur content and takes precautions to prevent oil spills.
Green Passengers: Specially marked containers are scattered throughout each ship in the fleet to encourage cruisers to recycle.
Oceania Cruises/Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Onboard Policies: The sister lines, both operated by Prestige Cruise Holdings, manage waste, reuse water, recycle and dispose of waste shoreside. Equipment onboard that supports these programs includes grinders for food and product waste; separators for galley products and recycling; crushers for glass, aluminum and cardboard; incinerators for food, cardboard, paper and other waste byproducts; and advanced technologies in wastewater treatment.
Conscious Crew: In addition to having an environmental officer sail onboard each ship and train crew members, the parent company of the two cruise lines employs a director of energy conservation.
Special Projects/Awards: Prestige Cruise Holdings is rolling out nine new energy efficiency initiatives over the next few years. These include coating all windows with special film to lessen the impact of heat from the sun and help reduce air-conditioning costs, and adding new computer software to monitor the vessel's energy efficiency and performance.
Green Passengers:Passengers can participate in onboard lectures, which include such green topics as marine life and the environment.
Onboard Policies: As part of the Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. family, these lines participate in the Save the Waves program, which employs an advanced wastewater purification system that treats wastewater onboard. There's a zero-discharge policy on solid waste; food waste is pulped and discharged more than 12 miles from land. To nip unnecessary waste in the bud, the line eliminated disposable plastic items typically available to cruisers -- such as shampoo bottles, plastic plates and flatware -- in favor of reusable or biodegradable options.
Conscious Crew: An environmental officer maintains the overall program on each ship. All crew receive training on their environmental responsibilities.
Special Projects/Awards: Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas is equipped with an atmospheric and oceanographic laboratory to help scientists conduct ocean and climate research. The lab, operated by the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS), can track pollutants in the air and sea, measure the flow of currents to understand the balance and distribution of heat on the planet, collect data to use in ocean and hurricane models, and monitor populations of organisms living in the sea. Although the focus is long-term scientific study and analysis, the National Hurricane Center also uses the data to improve storm track predictions. The company is installing new generators, which will produce electricity much more efficiently, on Radiance- and Millennium-class ships.
Royal Caribbean is also investing in alternative abatement technologies to clean fossil fuel emissions before they are released to the atmosphere. It continues to test out two such scrubber systems.
The Ocean Fund, established in 1996 by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., has since awarded more than $12 million in grants to more than 70 marine conservation organizations dedicated to protecting the ecosystems of the world's oceans. The Celebrity Xpedition Galapagos Fund, established in 2006, supports the conservation and protection of the Galapagos Islands through passenger donations.
Green Passengers: Royal Caribbean's Adventure Ocean program offers children and teens hands-on science experiments involving the environment. In the Caribbean, for instance, young cruisers can analyze the region's clouds, air temperature, precipitation, humidity and more in special "edu-tainment" classes.
Onboard Policies: Seabourn operates, as do most cruise lines, under an extensive grid of international guidelines and restrictions meant to minimize its ecological footprint. Green policies include using water treatment systems and environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, recycling, donating items for reuse and sustainably sourcing seafood. The cruise line has increased fuel efficiency by 5 percent since 2010, and low-flow toilets, sinks and showers are being installed in all passenger cabins.
Conscious Crew: There is an environmental officer onboard every Seabourn vessel on every cruise, and as a part of maintaining the ISO certification, goals are continually raised and progress monitored and reported.
Special Projects/Awards: Seabourn's Odyssey-class ships meet or exceed environmental standards. Seabourn Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest have advanced wastewater treatment systems, advanced systems for handling food waste that reduce water consumption in the galleys, and fancoil chillers that will reduce the amount of energy required to cool public spaces and suites.
Green Passengers: Cruiser programs include distribution of general information about reducing the impact on the environment. Programs also mention specific initiatives, such as the voluntary reuse of bathroom linens and reduced bed linen change. Recycling is encouraged, as is respect for the environment and indigenous cultures during shore excursions.
Onboard Policies: Silver Spirit, Silver Whisper and Silver Shadow are all equipped with navigation systems that evaluate sea conditions and adjust the ships' speed accordingly to achieve greater fuel conservation. LED lights on Silver Spirit reduce energy consumption. The cruise line donates unneeded beds, furniture and linens to charities.
Conscious Crew: Crewmembers are specially trained and responsible for sorting, processing, storing, recycling and disposing of waste. Cleaning crew use environmentally friendly cleaning products on all ships.
Special Projects/Awards: Silversea employs the latest diesel-electric propulsion design on Silver Spirit that will allow much of the engine power to shut down when power demand is less, reducing fuel usage and air emissions
Green Passengers: A selection of shore excursions focuses on educating passengers about indigenous species at wildlife sanctuaries, such as Kenya's Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary and a lemur sanctuary in Madagascar. Cruisers are encouraged to reuse linens and towels, keep verandah doors closed to conserve energy and recycle in marked bins on open decks.
--by Melissa Paloti, Director of Product Development; updated by Elissa Leibowitz Poma, Cruise Critic Contributor