The cruise industry is subject to increasingly stringent regulations surrounding wastewater, with the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) constantly updating its guidelines to reflect the latest technological capabilities. In addition to legislation dictating how and where operators can discharge waste, cruise ships are subject to even stricter regulations when visiting ecologically sensitive areas such as Alaska.

In the near future, the IMO is expected to introduce rules that require all ships to be fitted with state-of-the-art ballast water treatment systems. The industry is also using its own initiative to reduce its impact on the ocean habitat, with many operators choosing to follow guidelines set out by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which go above and beyond the rules. For example, regulations currently permit the discharge of untreated black water just 12 miles from shore, but CLIA members treat all such waste as a matter of course before it is released.

“The IMO is expected to introduce rules that require all ships to be fitted with state-of-the-art ballast water treatment systems.”

One such operator is Royal Caribbean, which has been installing advanced wastewater purification systems on board its newbuild ships for six years. The company is also in the process of retrofitting the same technology to its older vessels. Each system is used to treat both black and grey water, and by the end of the process, the liquid is far cleaner than legislation requires.

“We made a commitment that we would install advanced wastewater purification systems on board all Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships, and we have completed the latter,” says Jamie Sweeting, vice-president of environmental stewardship and global chief information officer. “On the Royal Caribbean side, we have eight or nine ships to go.”

A matter of survival

Sweeting thinks that dealing with the environmental challenge is crucial if the cruise industry is to survive in the long term.

“It is paramount – the oceans are our home, where our staff and crew make their living,” he says. “The seas are the bread and butter of our industry, and our guests don’t want to sail in polluted waters. It is incumbent upon us to do what we can to minimise any negative impact on the environment.”

In the near future, the IMO is also expected to insist that all ships are fitted with ballast water treatment systems, designed to help operators avoid inadvertently transferring plants and fish from one location to another when discharging ballast water. A recently published report by CLIA, entitled Steering a Sustainable Course, highlights the efforts of manufacturers to come up with a technology-based solution. One option removes sediment and biota as water is pumped into the ballast tank. An electronic cell is then used to decimate bacteria and organisms.

CLIA’s report also points out that the design of modern ships makes them far less likely to discharge ballast. Older vessels are more likely to do so, but only rarely; however, the IMO’s ballast water treatment convention is expected to be ratified in 2011, with existing vessels required to install suitable systems in the next few years.

Change of course

New technology is crucial when it comes to reducing the impact of cruising on the environment, and Sweeting thinks the industry is working well to meet the challenge.

“A few decades ago, there was a commonly held negative perception with regard to the cruise industry,” he says. “This was due to practices used in the early 1990s, such as throwing garbage overboard, which resulted in large fines for violating regulations. In the mid 1990s, the industry received a big wake-up call, and senior management became aware of the environmental impact.

“New technology is crucial when it comes to reducing the impact of cruising on the environment.”

“Now, cruise lines are expected to comply with regulations and are regularly audited by third-party organisations, which come on board and validate that ships are being run to management standard. In addition, we have environmental officers on every ship. The industry as a whole has changed its course.”

As well as changing protocol on board its fleet, Royal Caribbean has also invested more than $11m in environmental conservation programmes and projects over the past 15 years.

Michael Crye, executive vice-president of CLIA, agrees that the industry is working hard to improve its wastewater practices.

“We have made great strides to become a leader in the maritime industry,” he says.

“In addition to the fact that our lines meet all applicable environmental regulations wherever our ships sail, our industry has also instituted voluntary practices that go beyond the rules. We have also invested hundreds of millions of dollars in technology and innovations that are making a real difference.”

Continuous improvement

While considerable progress has been made, there is always more that can be done, and by 2015, Royal Caribbean aims to cut its carbon footprint per person per day by one third. The installation of new technology will be a key factor in the success of this initiative.

“We are the first to admit that we are far from perfect,” adds Sweeting. “However, our commitment will be better tomorrow than it is today. We have a mantra of continuous improvement, and we have aggressive long-term targets. Climate change and global warming are the most significant environmental issues of our time, and we want to play our part and help our guests play theirs, too.”

Crye adds that, in the future, the industry must continue to use technology to improve its environmental record in other areas.

“In addition to new technologies that allow us to continue to operate our ships in ways that minimise cruising’s impact, there are future environmental requirements that we must meet,” he says. “One area in which we expect to see continued innovation is air emissions. The cruise industry has also been investing in new technologies to manage the use of energy more effectively. This includes innovations such as slick hull coatings to minimise drag, developing more efficient engines and generators, and testing advanced engine exhaust gas scrubbers.”