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How Cruise Ships Like the Costa Concordia Destroy the Environment

In the wake of the Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster in the Mediterranian, many are now searching for answers on how such a catastrophe could have happened. But while this singular event highlights how human mistakes can lead to the sinking of a ship the size of three football fields, we shouldn't forget that there are also unseen damages every cruise ship in the world regularly makes on the environement.  

On a luxury cruise ship, your environmental impact is neatly hidden: The waste you generate is whisked below-deck by an industrious team of migrant workers; there are no garbage dumps brimming with detritus; and the thousands of tons of fuel that power the ship are stored deep in its bowels. But a cruise's cleanliness is illusory: Cruise ships are floating environmental disasters, and any tourists who values the ocean, the atmosphere, and their own lungs would do well to vacation elsewhere.

Most visible among cruise ships' environmental problems is the issue of waste: A recent EPA report found that cruise ships discharged an average of 21,000 gallons of sewage per day, and thousands more of graywater and bilge water. Although many ships are equipped with sewage treatment plants, their systems still pump illegal levels of fecal matter, heavy metals, and other effluents into the ocean. Oftentimes ships don't even bother treating their sewage, dumping it raw into the water.

These outputs are extremely harmful to marine life, yet they're mostly unregulated in the open ocean — ships can still release their untreated effluvia more than three miles from shore without repercussions. In areas that do possess more stringent disposal laws, compliance is often unfeasible. In the Caribbean Sea, for instance, dumping of solid garbage is prohibited; yet many Caribbean islands don't have the capacity to treat ship waste and ships are forced to dump their trash anyway. 

Even scarier than the waste ships generate, though, is the type of fuel they use: bunker fuel.

Bunker fuel is some of the foulest stuff mankind has ever used to power its machinery. It is the viscous, bottom-of-the-barrel residue of petroleum distillation, tar too thick to be burned by any vehicle other than an enormous ship. Because it is a waste product, it's dirt cheap, and thus perfect for use in cruise ships, which burn thousands of tons of oil per voyage.

But the ongoing use of bunker fuel is also one of the most appalling public health scandals in the world. Bunker fuel, when burned, produces an olio of airborne chemicals, including sulfur oxide, that have been linked with acid rain, asthma, and lung infections. In 2009 James Corbett, a University of Delaware expert on ship emissions, calculated that 64,000 residents of port cities die every year of bunker fuel-related ailments; in 2012, Corbett predicted, that number will rise to 87,000.

It is true that the shipping industry is a more significant burner of bunker fuel than cruise lines — a single supertanker can spew as much sulfur as 50 million cars. But with tens of thousands of ships plying global waters every year, cruise lines are burning more than enough bunker fuel to contribute to the death toll. And, even if you're unmoved by public health nightmares, the image of smokestacks belching black, sulfur-laden clouds into a blue sky might give you pause next time you consider sunbathing on the Lido Deck.

Cruise lines have made some perfunctory gestures at cleaning themselves up — for example, cold ironing, whereby ships can turn off their engines and plug into port power sources, is a promising technology — but, by and large, the industry is still dirty as a bucket of bilge. True reform will have to be imposed upon the cruise lines, but change isn't forthcoming: The International Maritime Organization, under pressure from shipping lobbies, has refused to regulate bunker fuel usage for decades. A reversal of IMO policy would save thousands of lives, and dramatically benefit oceanic and atmospheric health. 

But, assuming that stringent dumping and fuel burning laws aren't coming anytime soon, passengers must hold cruise lines responsible for their sins. Clean, aesthetically lovely oceans are what will draw 16 million passengers to cruises in 2011 (well, that and legal gambling in international waters); but don't be one of them. Cruise ships undermine the foundation of their own businesses by making it impossible to snorkel, eat seafood, or even breathe without fear of ingesting raw sewage or sulfur. When you plan your winter vacation this year, resist the allure of endless shuffleboard and R-rated magic shows, and stick to the beach. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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