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Cruise Line Ships Bring Green and Get Clean

Caribbean residents, cruising sailors, and island governments have differing viewpoints when it comes to cruise ship visits. Some people frown on “mass tourism” while others depend on ship calls for their livelihood. Passengers spend an estimated $1.5 billion annually in Caribbean ports, according to a March Associated Press (AP) article.

Cruise-related expenditures generated 41,500 jobs throughout the Caribbean, representing $600 million in wage income to residents, a 2006 study reported. Love them or hate them, cruise passengers are here to stay even though their numbers may decline due to the U.S. recession.

Per person spending on a day in port ranges from $50 to more than $200 for passengers and crew. Do the math:  St. Thomas, which enjoys the highest per-passenger spending level, welcomed 15,476 passengers and crew ashore on March 10, 2009 from four ships.

But even people who benefit financially may worry about ships’ impact on the sea. They dump trash, sewage and chemicals, right? Take a fresh look.

In 1999, Royal Caribbean pled guilty in U.S. Federal Courts and paid an $18 million fine for dumping waste oil and hazardous chemicals. Incidents like that “served as a wake-up call, causing our industry to redouble its efforts to improve its environmental performance,” says the Cruise Lines International Association, representing 24 of the major cruise lines serving North America and about 97% of the cruise capacity marketed from there. Now, the AP article reported, some ships actually generate less non-recycled waste now than a resort on land. And perhaps less, per person, than some sailors on small boats?

Holland America Line, with a fleet of 14 ships, vigorously reduces waste, recycles and complies with all international regulations governing marine operations. The line embraces cutting-edge technologies when building ships like the 1918-passenger MS Noordam, a familiar sight in Caribbean waters since it entered service in 2006.

“My job is to prevent pollution,” says the vessel’s onboard Environmental Officer Willem van Woerkom who retired from the Royal Dutch Navy after 36 years’ service before joining Holland America in 2007.

“Most difficult is the need to be aware of environmental regulations of every country—every sentence—and some go back to 1995,” he says.
Rules come from the U.S. Coast Guard and from the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO). MARPOL is the main convention governing preventing pollution of the marine environment. Countries and states like Alaska have their own sets of rules.

“It’s a lot of reading,” van Woerkom acknowledges. It’s a lot of waste to deal with, too. In a given week, passengers generate 60,000 gallons of sewage and 25,000 pounds of solid garbage.

Van Woerkom’s 10-hour workday consists of making the rounds of all departments, people and equipment, and monitoring myriad records. He trains crew, checks that certificates are up to date and gives onboard presentations to passengers.

“They ask me, ‘What is your biggest challenge?’” says the officer. “In all honesty, it is the guests.”  Van Woerkom recalls watching, aghast, as a passenger on an Alaska cruise tossed dead batteries from his camera over the railing. The line tries to educate and engage passengers through its pre-cruise literature, notices in the staterooms and trash-separating receptacles.

Below decks, crew members process both gray water (from the galley, dishwashers, sinks and showers) and black water (from toilets and the infirmary’s drains and sinks), separating out the odd reading glasses, dentures and rubber duckies dropped into the toilets. Using a series of tanks, filters, bio-reactors, and ultra violet filters, they turn it into drinkable water before dumping it miles offshore according to various international regulations.

“We have between our ears not to drink it,” van Woerkom says of the end product. “But many countries in the world would love to drink this water.”  The ship makes its drinking water by reverse osmosis or buys it in port after careful testing.

The crew mixes food waste with water in tanks and dehydrates it for burning or overboard dumping if it is legally-allowed. They also shred, compact, crush or incinerate solids. In the garbage room, five people sort paper, plastic, cans and bottles. Items like small amenity shampoos are separated out and donated to homeless shelters.

If not incinerated, everything possible is bundled and offloaded in places where recycling facilities exist like Fort Lauderdale, St. Lucia and Aruba. Money from recycled aluminum cans goes to the crew recreation fund.

Holland America pioneered the use of cascade bilge-water treatment systems, in which oily bilge water is treated by two separate systems before being legally discharged overboard. New ships have cleaner-burning propulsion technology, and the line now is studying the feasibility of spraying sea water to “scrub” or reduce sulfur oxide from engine emissions that come out the smokestack.

The technology is developing, the rules are increasing and the issues are complex. The Caribbean still has not taken a regional approach to adopting a 1993 U.N. ban on dumping of trash by some ships, like ground up glass or cardboard packaging, perhaps because many islands lack the U.N.-required ability to treat ship-generated garbage ashore after such a ban is imposed.

Until they do, our islands must rely on sophisticated environmental practices implemented by ships that cruise our waters and their owners who have a vested interest in doing so. “The oceans cover 75% of the earth’s surface,” says Holland America Line’s van Woerkom. “If we don’t protect them, we are out of business.”

Chris Goodier is a freelance writer and the editor of All at Sea

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