COVID-19 Is Dismantling The Cruise Industry
by Jordana Sheara
As we maneuver through 2020 and COVID-19, the entire world has been completely flipped upside down. On top of the devastation of death and illness rushing across the globe, many industries have been totally disrupted. Most notably, the travel and luxury cruise industries have been ravaged, and most have come to a complete standstill.
Cruise ships in particular have always been the ultimate icon of luxury. The giant moving cities provide any luxury your little heart could ever dream of. The possibilities are endless, and all while gliding through the ocean in some exotic part of the world.
But when looking a little deeper, these ships are one of the worst things to ever happen to the oceans. This disruption in the travel industry creates hope for sustainable growth in the cruise line sector. But will these giant corporations take the leap?
COVID-19 Shatters The Cruise Industry
When COVID-19 swept across the earth, these same ships became the location of some of the earliest hotspots for the disease. In February, the infamous Diamond Princess (owned by Carnival) was the largest hotspot of COVID-19 reported on a single ship. It was subsequently sealed off for weeks.
No port was open to receiving them, creating a moving incubation tank for the deadly virus. By mid-March, at least 25 different cruise ships were associated with confirmed COVID-19 cases. The CDC then declared a No Sail order on March 14, 2020.
Months later, the Cruise industry continues to freefall. Norwegian, Holland America, and Carnival Cruises (who reported a loss of over $4 billion this year), had initially projected 2020 to be a year of growth. Instead, they have to deal with major losses. Many cruise lines are forced to reduce their fleets and end the operation of several ships.
Ships from the UK, Italy, and the US ended operations and they’re sending several ships to their final destination. They end up in ship breaking yards in ports of Turkey, Pakistan, and India. This is a long process, as it takes 6 months to dismantle each ship. Materials like steel and glass are often repurposed. Pieces like decor, beds, and chairs are sold off by scrapyards to hotels and collectors. While this may seem like a sob story, the cruise industry definitely has a dark side. It’s one of the worst polluters in the world, and the corporations managing them don’t hesitate to cut corners to save profits.
Why is Cruise Ship Pollution so Extreme?
Cruise companies claim to make steps towards achieving a smaller carbon footprint but have nothing concrete to fall back on. Despite years of criticism, most cruise companies have never shown a structured plan to become emission-free.
Even less have they implemented what little plan they did have. Many companies don’t meet the Paris Agreement of Climate Change, and show few signs of making an effort to level up. International Maritime laws about pollution are often vague and fragmented. This means these companies get away with some really icky things.
The ships themselves have a staggering toll on the environment. British environmental groups have found that a single large cruise ship emits as much soot and air pollution as 1 million cars in a single day.
It takes only 30 cruise ships to emit as much pollution as every single car in the UK.
Cruise Ship Sewage Problem
While talking about sewage isn’t the most pleasant, it’s a huge part of cruise pollution.
So here we go:
“Cruise ships are needlessly dumping vast amounts of raw sewage and other harmful wastes into some of the most pristine parts of our oceans every day. Each day a cruise ship generates as much as:
• 30,000 gallons of sewage, also called “black water;”
• 255,000 gallons of dirty water from showers, sinks, laundry and dishwashers, also called “gray water”. This water contains raw sewage and toxic chemicals from photo processing, dry cleaning and industrial cleaning products;
• 7,000 gallons of oily bilge water…”
All this waste is supposed to be sterilized and separated by solid and liquid, then incinerated. But, it’s much cheaper for cruise lines to drop waste into the ocean, and then play dumb when they get busted. Many ships have created alternative piping to bypass water treatment systems that were in place and prefer to dump waste directly into the ocean.
Several cruise lines have been charged with criminal penalties for deliberate acts of pollution. But the fees themselves are not significant enough to make these corporate heavy weights change their dirty ways.
Dirty Fuel, Polluted Oceans
I know this already sounds bleak, but hold on— we’re just getting started. While working on their tans and sipping mojitos, the ships carrying cruise guests are running on the dirtiest petrol around. The reason they use such dirty fuel is simple: it’s cheap, and they get away with it. There’s very little maritime standards on the quality of fuel.
The standards are so low, and many cruise companies still have found ways around industry regulations. One way is using “scrubbers,” which clean the fuel just enough to pass industry standards. They use what’s called “open loop scrubbers”, which means most of the dirt from the “cleaned” fuel gets dumped into the ocean later.
“A glaring loop-hole in the international regulations lets ships avoid switching to cleaner fuels by using scrubbers, also known as ‘emissions cheat systems’. Recently, a number of countries have identified red flags arising from their use. Therefore, they should be restricted in line with the precautionary principle” said Dr. Lucy Gilliam, from the Shipping and Aviation Officer for Transport & Environment.
Cruise Ship Air Pollution
On top of all this, these giant floating hotels are running constantly. Their engines are left on 24/7 to avoid port taxes and to provide passengers with restaurants, spas, and heated pools. Because the highest degree of luxury is, of course, swimming in a heated pool, while on the ocean.
The energy used by these ships is comparable to a mid sized city. Mid sized cities who have the same air quality as some of the most polluted parts of the world.
COVID-19 and Pollution
Since its conception in the 1960’s, the cruise industry has been consistently growing. Hardships, recessions and diseases have had little effect on them. COVID-19 is the biggest blow the industry has ever had to face.
Several of these polluting beasts are being demolished as a means to leverage money. When it comes to the environment though, less is more.
Seems like simple math, doesn’t it? Less polluting monster ships spewing trash into the ocean equals less pollution. If you’ve been floating around (pun intended) on the internet during lockdown, you’ve probably seen images about clean canals in Venice, Italy.
This is a much-needed break for the environment and there have been some temporary improvements in the air and ocean. But unfortunately, it will be short lived.
In fact, many factories will produce even more than they did before to compensate for the major losses in the economy. The regulations on pollution have been loosened in the US because of the pandemic.
The Trump administration rolled back several standards put in place to protect the environment by the Obama administration. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a No-sail law until February 2021. The Trump administration has side-stepped this and the cruise industry is set to start again as early as October 31st. No doubt a move with the intention of swaying the ginormous tourism industry in Florida right before the elections.
Finding the Silver Lining
The short lived dips in pollution during lockdown were enough to make some small changes. Hopefully the public takes a moment to realize what breathing clean air actually feels like. This awareness motivates for more proactive and sustainable decisions in daily life. It’s safe to assume that pretty much everyone likes breathing, right?
Despite the disastrous effects on public welfare and the economy, there’s hope moving forward. Hopefully, these corporations rebuild with sustainability in mind.
A lot of changes will already be made for a post-COVID-19 cruise. Upgraded ventilation, rapid results testing, and temperature scanning in terminals will be standard. And you guessed it, no more buffets. Sorry, shrimp lovers.
The Paris Climate goal for the cruise industry is to have completely emission-free ships by the year 2050. The plan is to achieve it, is by building ships with modern technologies, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases.
Also to use shore power instead of running on dirty fuel 24/7, and use proper soot and waste filters. Older ships may be retrofitted to meet these standards also.
If cruise companies were to tighten up and agree to these goals (and actually implement them), it is possible to have emission free ships by 2050.
What Can You Do to Help?
The best thing you can do is stay informed! There are many ways you can help keep the environment clean in your daily life. It’s important to be on top of what’s going on while so much unprecedented craziness is happening.
Sign up for the Ocean Blue Newsletter to stay in the know about news and actions you can take. If you can, donate to Ocean Blue Project so they can continue to educate and fight for a clean ocean.
Bio: Jordana Sheara is a freelance photographer and copywriter. She’s based in Los Angeles and specializes in eco-tourism, travel, and restaurant culture. When not on the job, you can find her picnicking in parks, petting other peoples’ dogs, and plotting her next adventure out of the city.