Which Cruise Lines Are Really Harming the Environment?

September 17, 2009
Cruise Ship Report Card

(6:53 p.m. EDT) -- The cruise industry's conscience has been thrust into the limelight this week thanks to an environmental "report card" issued by Friends of the Earth, a grassroots organization with offices in Washington, DC, and San Francisco. In a press release tied to the report, Friends of the Earth has termed Disney Cruise Line the "dirtiest" cruise line, setting off a media firestorm in newspapers and blogs across the U.S. and U.K. about how green the industry is -- or isn't.

Indeed, a quick scan of the grades paints a damning picture, with half of the cruise lines assessed earning grades of C- or below -- and both Disney and Royal Caribbean International earning F's (Disney was singled out for having straight F's, while RCI eked in a D on its way to an F average). Holland America did the best, with a B average, and nobody aced it. (For a look at the full report card, click here.)

However, there's more to these dramatic scores than meets the eye.

The Friends of the Earth, or FOE, graded 10 cruise lines -- Holland America, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Lines, Silversea Cruises, RCI and Disney -- on several criteria:

Sewage Treatment. FOE spokeswoman Marcie Keever tells us that each line received a numeric grade equal to the percentage of ships in each fleet on which advanced wastewater and sewage treatment systems have been installed. So, for example, the fact that only 11 of 17 Princess ships have such facilities means that its fleet netted a final score of 65 percent (which FOE considers a C+).

Air Pollution Reduction. This category assesses whether a cruise line has retrofitted its ships to "plug in" to shoreside power when docked. Again, the grade is based on a percentage, but Keever says FOE took into account only those ships that actually call on ports equipped for shoreside power.

Water Quality Compliance. This category is applicable only to those cruise lines that sail in Alaska, where discharges are monitored and tested. The percentages are based on the number of violations each particular line was issued in Alaskan waters in 2008 compared to the number of voyages it sailed.

Accessibility of Environmental Information. Though not included in the final grade, each line was given a pass or fail based on how easily FOE believes the average consumer can find environmental information on each line's Web site.

What's confusing, though, is some of the math involved in calculating the final scores.

In general, the final grade is an average of the scores earned in the first three categories. However, for those cruise lines without Alaska sailings (Disney and Cunard), the final grade is instead the average of the first two categories. To us, this seems to put lines that don't happen to sail in Alaska -- a destination that has been an environmental pathfinder for the industry -- at a distinct disadvantage.

When asked whether Keever agreed, she told us that, yes, the lines that don't visit Alaska do lose ground in the current scoring system. However, "to be honest," Keever says, "I think we're at a disadvantage because there's no other place in the country that takes a look at what's coming out of the smokestacks of these cruise ships. We have no idea if someone's doing a good job in, say, Florida waters."

What do the cruise lines have to say about the FOE report? When we began contacting lines named in the project, such as Carnival and Princess, all directed us to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which counts these lines among its 24 North American members. CLIA is an organization that represents the cruise lines in marketing and government lobbying capacities.

CLIA executives would not comment directly on the report, but the organization's public relations office issued a statement on the report card, condemning the findings. More surprising is that FOE's Keever tells us that the organization was in touch with CLIA throughout the evaluation process -- so even if the contents of the report card were a surprise, the fact that the group was working on it probably shouldn't have been.

CLIA's statement disputes FOE's grading system. CLIA claims that FOE unnecessarily penalized ships that are equipped to "plug into" shore power but can't because the ports they visit don't offer it, contrary to what Keever told us (that only those ships that actually call on ports equipped for shoreside power counted toward the total percentage).

CLIA also points out that those ships docked for not having advanced treatment systems do use federally required sewage treatment systems in accordance with industry practices and procedures -- and that all wastewater meets national clean water standards. This is an accurate point.

More from CLIA: "The so-called 'Report Card' released by Friends of the Earth is not based on science, law or the facts, but rather FOE's own arbitrary and flawed criteria," the statement reads. "The grades in the report card clearly ignore the fact that our cruise lines comply with and in most cases exceed all applicable environmental regulations set by the Federal government and other regulatory bodies around the world. Fortunately Friends of the Earth has no authority in the matter. Regulatory compliance is not based on meeting Friends of the Earth's biased, unscientific interpretation of what the rules should be."

It's important to keep in mind that both Friends of the Earth and CLIA have competing interests. FOE is passionate about protecting the environment, while CLIA's job is to promote the value and desirability of cruise vacations. And, of course, CLIA and other nonprofit organizations have plenty of fodder to promote specific agendas.

Indeed, there are different ways of crunching the numbers and interpreting the data when it comes to the industry's impact on the environment. Here's one example. According to FOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that a 3,000-person cruise ship generates 210,000 gallons of sewage weekly -- enough to fill 10 backyard swimming pools. On the flipside, the NorthWest CruiseShip Association, a not-for-profit association representing lines operating in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Alaska and Hawaii, points out that cruise ships have cut their waste and garbage almost in half over the last decade, while sustaining a growth in cruise capacity averaging 7.6 percent annually.

So -- what are you supposed to come away with having read surveys, stats and reports? Bottom line: How do passengers, who care about the environment, know which information to embrace?

Even Cruise Critic members are split on the issue; in a recent poll, 39 percent of readers said that lines "do only what's required"; almost the same number, 38 percent, felt that cruise lines "are very environmentally conscious."

Despite the confusion and the head-butting, we can say one thing for certain: cruise lines are establishing newer and more innovative initiatives in an effort to "green" the industry. A few highlights:

Celebrity Cruises has begun installing solar panels on its newest ships for powering onboard components such as LED lights. Celebrity Solstice launched with 80 panels; Celebrity Equinox was built with 216.

Norwegian Cruise Line donates used cooking grease to an organic farmer in Miami, and has been doing the same in Hawaii. Carnival U.K. is also testing cooking oil conversion on ships docking in Southampton.

MSC's newest vessels are among the most environmentally friendly in the industry. 2008's MSC Poesia was the first ever to be coated with Intersleek 900 paint with "four release" -- a non-toxic substance that helps lower carbon dioxide emissions through the reduction of fuel.

And what about Disney? Disney Wonder, too, enjoys increased fuel efficiency due to a new hull coating. The cruise line also sponsors educational and inspirational programs for adults and children, including Jiminy Cricket's "Environmentality" Quiz Show. Even Keever says that Disney was very responsive to FOE's correspondence, and is committed to upgrading sewage technology on its two existing ships and installing the newest advanced sewage treatment on its under-construction new-builds: "They could potentially be getting an A as soon as next year."

--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor

Screenshot from Friends of the Earth's Web site