Cruise Ships & the Environment: The Sewage Edition

First, the good news.

The cruise ship most seen in Sydney during the 2016 season, Holland America Line’s Veendam, got an A grade from the Friends of the Earth in their 2016 Cruise Ship Report Card.

MS Rotterdam of the Holland America Line docked in Sydney.

MS Rotterdam of the Holland America Line docked in Sydney, rated “F” by the Friends of the Earth.

The bad news? Our second-most frequent visitor, the Veendam’s sister ship Rotterdam, got a D minus.

We also had visits from two F grade cruise ships: Crystal Serenity and Silversea, owned, respectively, by Silversea Cruise Lines and Genting Hong Kong (which also owns Star Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line).

Here’s the breakdown for all the vessels on the cruise ship schedule for Sydney in 2016 (excluding the Fred Olsen line’s MS Boudicca, which visited twice; Hapag LLoyd’s Europa2, which visited once; and Global Maritime’s Marco Polo, which also visited once).

I’ve left out the category of “Transparency” (which refers to a Cruise Line’s willingness to answer the Friends of the Earth’s questions and which saw Disney get an A and everyone else get an F) and “Water Quality Compliance,” which only applies to vessels sailing in Alaskan waters.


Cruise LineVesselCapacitySewage TreatmentAir Pollution Reduction2016 Final GradeVisits to Sydney 2016Owner
DisneyDisney Magic3345AFC-2Disney
CunardQueen Mary 23873AA A1Carnival
Holland America LineZuiderdam2781AA A4Carnival
PrincessCaribbean Princess4342FA C-4Carnival
Sea Princess2926AA-A1
Norwegian Cruise LinesNorwegian Dawn3372ACB+2NCL
CelebrityCelebrity Summit3157AA A3Royal Caribbean Cruises
SeabournSeabourn Quest780AFC-1Carnival
OceaniaRegatta1084AFC 1Oceania
Regent Seven Seas CruisesSeven Seas Navigator835AFC+1Regent Seven Seas
SilverseaSilver Whisper684FFF1Silversea
CrystalCrystal Serenity1725FFF1Japan Shipping Co


As you can see from the table, 11 of the 15 rated boats that visited Sydney in 2016 had an A grade in ‘Sewage Treatment.’ That means they are equipped with advanced wastewater treatment systems (AWTS) which are better than the old type II marine sanitation devices (MSDs). This is important, according to cruise industry critic Ross Klein of Memorial University in Newfoundland, because:

Canadian regulations do not address the full range of discharges into Canada’s waters, which is something that cruise ships take advantage of by polluting legally in Maritime waters.

There is an International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) which can be “more stringent than Canadian law,” according to Klein, but it has no enforcement regime. Moreover, when faced with a MARPOL regulation that is more stringent than the local Canadian regulation, cruise ships can simply opt to follow the Canadian rule.



I asked Transport Canada for details of Canada’s cruise ship pollution regulations and was sent a link to “Pollution Prevention Guidelines for the Operation of Cruise Ships Under Canadian Jurisdiction,” the preface to which contains these comforting remarks:

It is recognized that the cruise industry, internationally, has made commitments to the goal of better protection of the environment and have [sic] developed guidance for best practices within its industry sector. These Guidelines build on the industry approach and provide a Canadian perspective.

(Ah, self-regulation. That always works out so well.)

Cruise ship, Juneau, Alaska

Cruise ship in Juneau, Alaska (Photo by Gillfoto, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The guidelines, in their third iteration since Klein wrote his first industry report (they were “regulations” in 2007 but retreated to guidelines in 2013), provide a rather extensive list of things cruise ships produce and must dispose of. It includes garbage, which is pretty much the same as land-lubber garbage; greywater, which is drainage from sinks and washing machines and showers and tubs and dishwashers; liquefied galley wastes, which are “wastes from sinks and dishwashers no more than 25 mm in diameter;” sewage (including human body wastes and drainage from sick bays, also known as ‘black water’); bilge and oily water residues; ballast waters; and hazardous waste.

Some things — like garbage and hazardous waste of any description — must be disposed of ashore, but others may be dumped in the ocean. Klein’s argument is, even if we trust cruise lines to obey our rules (and it’s worth noting that they’ve faced millions of dollars in fines in the US for not obeying rules) our rules are pretty lax. This is especially true if you compare us with Alaska, which not only has strict rules for water and air quality, it actually monitors them. But it’s even true compared to a much closer state:

…discharges of greywater and treated sewage are banned in the waters of Maine, but are unregulated in Canada. In addition, Casco Bay (Portland, Maine) is classified a no-discharge zone where not even ships with advanced wastewater treatment systems are permitted to discharge their effluent, while the same ships can discharge anywhere in the Maritimes, including in the waters adjacent to Halifax, Saint John, Sydney, and Charlottetown.

I checked the Transport Canada guidelines and Klein is basically right — cruise ships may discharge greywater “at a distance of at least three nautical miles from shore,” while treated sewage may be dumped “at a distance of more than 3 nautical miles from shore.”


Black Water

But the best part is the untreated sewage which, you may recall, includes both human body wastes and “drainage from medical premises” and contains all kinds of nasty (harmful bacteria, pathogens, disease, viruses, intestinal parasites, harmful nutrients):

…a cruise ship may discharge untreated sewage in coastal waters and Canadian internal marine waters at a distance of more than 12 nautical miles from shore, provided that sewage that [sic] has been stored in holding tanks and shall not be discharged instantaneously but at a moderate rate when the ship is making way and proceeding at not less than 4 knots;

Cruise ship, Bar Harbor, Maine (Photo by JRLibby, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


With what we now know about sewage — both treated and untreated — let’s have another look at that 2016 Cruise Report Card, only this time, instead of concentrating on the 11 vessels with AWTS, let’s think about the four without. The four that got Fs for sewage treatment. They are probably equipped with those type II MSDs mentioned earlier. According to Klein:

These devices treat waste chemically or biologically and are supposed to produce effluent containing no more than 200 fecal coliform for 100 millilitres and no more 150 milligrams per litre of suspended solids. Whether MSDs were reaching that standard was called into question in 2000 when the state of Alaska found that 79 of 80 samples were out of compliance.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the problems identified then with MSDs continue today.

And yet, those four ships were permitted to dump sewage treated in MSDs within 3 nautical miles of our coast line (as will any ships that arrive similarly equipped next season).

I know the responsibility for regulating cruise ships rests with the federal government, I’m not expecting the CBRM to do something outside its mandate. But the environmental impacts of cruise ships need to be part of  any “sober discussion” we, as a community, have about the industry.


Featured image: Alaska cruise deck chairs (Photo by By dbking, Flickr: MVC-005F, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


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