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Cruise Lines Reducing Their Garbage


© St. Petersburg Times

Probably the last thing you thought about on your cruise was what happened to the food you didn't finish, all the tiny shampoo bottles you left half-empty, all the plastic drink cups the waiters collected on the pool deck.

But the cruise lines are thinking about all of that. So is the Coast Guard. And the International Maritime Organization, the New Jersey Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service, the World Bank, the Center for Marine Conservation . . .

The cruise industry -- and its passengers -- have come quite a ways in the past dozen years in this regard, representatives agreed during an international maritime conference last month. One official told the hundreds attending an anti-pollution seminar that in a one-day clean-up-the-coast campaign recently, not a single item that could be traced to a cruise ship had been found.

Concerned passengers and non-passengers used to write letters to the non-profit Center for Marine Conservation about ship-generated pollution, but "Now we get only a letter or two every six months," said Kate Hinch, project director for the center.

She added: "We tell the passengers who write us to be watchdogs -- to note whether the recycle containers are labeled and within reach. Does the cruise line use wooden swizzle sticks or plastic?"

Much of the progress in eliminating such pollution is due to U.S. and international laws, enforced along U.S. shores by the Coast Guard and carrying stiff fines. But much of the pressure has come from passengers, too.

"As they become more aware of environmental concerns, they ask us hard questions," Holland America Line's Randall Peterson told the audience at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention.

"They want to know what we do to minimize such damage. We find the passengers are even looking for the right container to toss their recyclables," added Peterson, who is chief of environmental programs for the line and its Westours Inc. subsidiary.

Not that all sea-borne pollution comes from cruise ships.

"Generally, pollution is more concentrated close to shore -- and the majority of it is not ship-generated but land-generated," said Alex Wypyszinski. The director of the New Jersey Sea Grant Marine Advisory Service explained that major pollution sources include "yachts, houseboats, hotels, boat yards, commercial ships, even poorly maintained but technically sophisticated "pocket' sewerage systems that resorts or hotels on islands have installed."

Because there are so many islands in the area designated the Wider Caribbean -- 22 nations have shorelines on the Caribbean Sea or Gulf of Mexico -- much of the waste is not washed out into the larger oceans but is retained around the islands and continental shores.

Last month saw the implementation of a publicity campaign conducted in English, Spanish, French, Creole and Dutch that will move the Wider Caribbean toward designation by international authorities as a "Special Area." This in turn would mean all ships would be prohibited from discharging any garbage into the waters other than ground food waste.

Wypyszinski (whip-ZIN-skee) noted that the World Bank is already financing a $54-million project to handle solid waste in eastern Caribbean nations. This could include waste taken off visiting cruise ships.

He is director of the Sea Grant service at Rutgers University in New Jersey, a member of the the consortium of 23 coastal states in which universities perform maritime research and share the information. The University of Florida is one of those universities.

Despite the widespread sources of pollution, he said, "Enormous strides have been made over the past decade in the cruise lines cleaning up their act."

Yet despite onboard treatment technology, shipboard lectures -- "Our passengers consider our talks about this as self-enrichment," said Holland America's Peterson -- and the switch from plastic shampoo and lotion bottles to paper or paraffin-wax containers, there are limits to the reduction of pollution.

"The technology is there to bring ship-generated waste to almost zero," said Hinch of the Center for Marine Conservation.

But Peterson answered that although " "zero discharge' of waste is our goal . . . there are times when zero is not zero. There are some areas where we should cork up the ship until we get some better understanding of things."

Peterson, who said that Holland America replaced its annual use of 7.5-million plastic amenities bottles with paraffin-wax containers, continued:

"We can reduce the oily water (escaping from cruise ships) to less than the government-allowed 15 parts per million; we can treat sewage by secondary and tertiary methods . . . There are 60 tons of food and 100 tons of fuel going onboard a ship each week. All plastic items are either recycled or burned; all food waste, paper and sludge oil is burned.

"But we still have ash -- about one-thirtieth of the volume that we had coming onboard. This ash has no heavy metal residue, so when we reach land we take it ashore and it goes into a landfill. So there is always something there.

"Zero discharge right now is not possible."

Nonetheless, Coast Guard Capt. Richard Wigger told the audience, "There is a recognition in the cruise and commercial shipping industry that "green is good.' There has been more cooperation with us lately . . . A lot of the disposal and pollution problems have to do with the age of the ships (older vessels may lack technological advances), but the industry has been very, very responsive."

So much so, said Christopher Hayman, managing director of the sponsoring Seatrade Organization, that the matter of ship-created pollution "was a much more divisive issue five years ago. It is a measure of the progress that it's now a friendly and positive discussion."

Originally published April 13, 1997

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