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Written by Jim W. Harper, BT Contributor   
January 2015

Not all cruise ships operate the same

Tbigstock-Cruise-Ships-In-Port-5009265o cruise or not to cruise, that is today’s green question. For cruise ship-happy Miami, it’s a huge question, with very few experts and straightforward answers. You can avoid the dilemma by staying home. But if you must cruise for vacation, why not choose a greener cruise line?

Cruising is called the fastest-growing tourism sector, and Miami has profited greatly as the world’s busiest cruise ship port. Nearby Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale is not far behind, and major cruise lines have corporate headquarters across South Florida.

From an economic standpoint, cruising is Floridian royalty. But for the individual, is cruising a dirtier form of vacationing than driving or flying? Are the new mega-ships better than smaller ones?

Ask Friends of the Earth. This environmental watchdog downgraded all cruise lines this year in comparison to last year’s “Cruise Report Card” (

Every major cruise line flunked the Transparency category of the report card, according to Friends of the Earth, because “in a complete reversal from prior years of cooperation and transparency,” all 16 major cruise lines refused -- through their industry association, Cruise Lines International Association -- to respond to...requests for information on their pollution-reduction technologies.”

Of the 16 cruise lines and 167 ships reviewed by Friends of the Earth, the highest overall grade, a C+, went to Disney Cruise Line. The four worst corporations, earning an overall F, are Costa Cruises, Crystal Cruises, MSC Cruises, and P&O Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation.

In the 2013 report, without the Transparency category, Disney earned the only A, completing a 180-degree from the F it earned in the 2009 inaugural report. Three B-rated corporations were Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. These four also top the 2014 list with grades of C.

The report gives separate grades for sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, and water quality compliance. Most cruise lines score worst on air pollution, and their dirty fuel is poorly regulated. D-listed Carnival Cruise Lines earned an F on sewage, a D on air pollution, and an A on water quality. (Huh? The water-quality compliance criteria used data from strict monitoring in Alaska only.)

Twenty-one individual ships this year earn straight A’s (when not judged on Transparency), including several from Celebrity Cruises, which earned a D+ overall. No Carnival ship earned above a C+. Based in Doral, Carnival is the “worst cruise line in the world” for environmental and other reasons, according to Miami maritime lawyer James M. Walker (see

The lesson? Choose your ship carefully. Don’t simply rely on Mickey Mouse to make you happy.

The carbon footprint of cruising is triple that of land dwelling, according to Friends of the Earth, and cruise ships discharge more than one billion gallons of sewage worldwide each year. Attorney Walker says cruise ships can legally dump raw fecal matter into the ocean once they are three miles from shore. A small oil leak from one ship becomes enormous if multiplied by the more than 400 cruise ships worldwide.

A major problem is lax international law and enforcement; and ships are difficult to monitor at sea. Most cruise lines escape U.S. taxes and strict environmental laws by incorporating abroad. For example, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. is incorporated in Liberia. The largest line, Carnival, is incorporated in Panama.

The U.S. cruise industry has cleaned up much of its act from earlier days of wanton polluting, but it can do better. The industry has grown so quickly that the sheer number and size of ships, even if they are environmentally responsible, guarantees more total pollution of the air and oceans.

Assuming that a stay-cation cannot satisfy every customer, and looking at the evidence, you might be torn about what type of vacation has a lesser impact on the environment: taking a cruise to Puerto Rico or flying round trip and staying in a resort.

Using ballpark estimates, it seems likely that a cruise has a greater total environmental impact than a flight and resort-style vacation. But the claim that cruises are three times more carbon polluting than flights has not been proved.

Ship passengers may be surprised to learn that cruising likely produces more carbon pollution than equivalent flights. The impact worsens by adding the carbon pollution of the flight to reach the port of departure.

I would not automatically rule out a cruise, but I’d choose very carefully and certainly not frequently. And we can do penance for any vacation or long-distance travel by purchasing carbon reduction credits for approximately five percent of the travel’s cost.

Any journalist who takes a complimentary cruise should of course disclose that practice for the sake of transparency.

Curiously, the Sun-Sentinel, based in Broward County, published an article about the Friends of the Earth 2014 report card, but the Miami Herald did not. Huh? The cruise industry is running a very profitable ship and is keeping its lips very tight.


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