Meeting environmental objectives has never been more important, and as Princess Cruises president and CXO (chief experience and innovation officer) for Carnival Corporation John Padgett is quick to point out, the company has already established six primary focus areas aligning with key UN sustainable development goals including: climate action; circular economy; sustainable tourism; good health and well-being; and biodiversity and conservation. Other efforts under way include ramping up electrical shore power capabilities, LNG power, lithium-ion battery storage, hull air lubrication systems, fuel cells, biodiversity and the dramatic reduction of single-use plastics and food waste on board.

“We’ve (also) been actively installing green biodigester systems across our global fleet, as well as next-generation advanced wastewater treatment plants,” Padgett adds. The details of which will feature in the company’s upcoming ‘Corporate Sustainability Report’.

“Our top priority is compliance, environmental protection and the health, safety and well-being of our guests, crew members, shore side employees and the people in the communities we visit,” he says. “Across the corporation, we’ve set a goal to reduce our carbon intensity rate by 40% by 2030, having already reached a reduction of more than 25%, so we’re making strong progress.” The company also aspires to net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050.

One major challenge though, as Padgett is quick to acknowledge, is that cruise ships have many wastewater streams – Princess alone produced over 5.1 million tonnes in 2019, for example. So, the obvious question is how to treat it.

Breaking it down

Wastewater can be classified as being one of three types. These are grey water, black water and bilge water. Though these types sometimes share similarities in viscosity and contents, they require different kinds of treatment and disposal processes.

“13 of 15 Princess ships have advanced wastewater treatment systems (AWTs) installed, which treat sewage and some grey water through a biological process to meet the standards of some of the best municipal wastewater treatment systems ashore,” says Padgett.

He adds: “Our AWTs comply with International Maritime Organisation (IMO)-type approval standards, depending upon the current international standard when the system was designed and installed.”

Specifically, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) is the main framework covering the prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships from operational or accidental causes.

In certain regions though, such as Alaska, Princess ships are subject to additional regulation for the treatment of sewage, for example. Hence, in addition to meeting the initial AWTs-type approval standard, the company’s ships must also comply with a rigorous federal and state preseason testing regime using an external laboratory.

In addition, the State of Alaska requires bimonthly sampling and testing using the same independent laboratory to ensure the AWTs is continuing to meet all regulatory parameters while in operation.

Emptying the bilge

In the case of bilge water, for example, any liquid entering machinery space bilges – including bilge wells, bilge piping, tank tops or bilge holding tanks – is considered oily bilge water and is processed as such, according to Padgett. “Bilge water is only discharged overboard after being processed through an IMO-approved Oily Water Separator and Oil Content Monitor, and through a Bilge Control Discharge Box (BCDB). Processed bilge water that is stored in a clean bilge water tank must pass through a BCDB prior to discharge overboard,” he adds.

“Princess Cruises has extensive procedures in place to guide the crew on maintenance and calibration of the equipment and sensors for effective processing of oily bilge water,” he says. Meanwhile, all treatment plants on Princess ships have been certified by the US Coast Guard as approved marine sanitation devices. These treatment facilities naturally break down and disinfect black water, for example, which after processing is discharged into the sea at least 12 miles from shore – exceeding the distance required by law.

Improve the air quality – cut the discharges

Improving wastewater management is only part of the environmental equation, however. Also needing to be considered (and no less important) is the use of Advanced Air Quality Systems (AAQS), aimed at reducing the amount of sulphur dioxide (SO2) in the atmosphere.

As Padgett notes, the sulphur in the discharge is primarily in the form of sulphate, which is naturally occurring in seawater – more often than not due to volcanoes and degassing from the seabed. But he adds that the amount of sulphate added from AAQS “is insignificant compared to the current amount of sulphate already in the ocean”.

“Princess Cruises has extensive procedures in place to guide the crew on maintenance and calibration of the equipment and sensors for effective processing of oily bilge water.”

A secondary environmental benefit coming from the use of AAQS is that it reduces a notable amount of particulate matter from exhaust, “improving the overall quality of the exhaust that comes out of our towers”, he adds. “In some studies, the amount of particulate matter removal from AAQS resulted in less particulate matter in the exhaust, when compared to burning low sulphur fuels without AAQS.

“A practical benefit from using AAQS is that the systems help us meet the global sulphur limit, as well as the stricter emission control area (ECA) requirements.

“Starting in 2020, there was a global sulphur limit imposed of 0.5% sulphur content in fuel,” Padgett continues. Vessels can either use lower sulphur fuel or use higher sulphur fuel in combination with AAQS. This is especially important if there are any challenges sourcing low sulphur fuel in the ports that we visit as our ships operate worldwide.”

While AAQS systems can help reduce costs – a boon given fuel is a major expense of the shipping business – the savings reaped may not be immediately apparent, due to AAQS requiring a significant capital investment at the outset. Yet, as Padgett is quick to point out: “We continue to invest in the AAQS system to keep them maintained and improve their function. These systems have the unique benefit of being both good for the environment and good for business.”

Covid-19 causes problems

Exacerbating the state of these murky waters in more ways than one though has been the impact of the Covid-19 global pandemic – plus the need for Princess (and others) to work with health authorities and governments around the world to implement on-board health protocols as the cruise industry continues to open up.

“The health protocols complicate matters from a sustainability standpoint, but the health and safety of our guests, team members and port support staff remain our priority. Our medical and public health teams have been working tirelessly over [the] last two years to engage with national governments, and regional and local authorities to ensure that we understand and comply with all appropriate medical and screening requirements,” says Padgett.

Notably, while some testing requirements have recently been reduced, according to Padgett, there is still a lot of testing being conducted.

“This generates a lot of medical waste that is usually incinerated, but due to extraordinary volumes, sometimes needs to be offloaded to vendors ashore,” he says, adding: “Additionally, crew or guests who are Covid positive must quarantine and their waste needs to be handled as minimally as possible” – meaning the quarantined team member or guest will be instructed to sort their own ‘incineratable’ and ‘non-incineratable’ waste bags.

Padgett further notes: “These bags are sealed at the cabin and are then either incinerated or offloaded as is, with minimal handling from crew members wearing appropriate personal protective equipment and no further sorting. While these Covid-concerning waste streams are quite small compared to all wastes offloaded, there are some items disposed via these streams that are recyclable materials.”

Show and tell

The journey to sustainability, however, wouldn’t be complete without the engagement of customers. Case in point is a new digital video series, made available on Princess’s YouTube Channel, called ‘Ocean Treks Conservation Connections’. A 28-episode series, featuring marine biologist and wildlife conservationist Jeff Corwin, it offers short stories about environmental management, wildlife conservation, recycling and sustainability – including food waste reduction. Padgett’s overall objective at Princess Cruises is to “raise the bar on how we think about the environment, sustainability, and minimising our impact”.

“That is not just the physical ship and all the environmental systems, but all the policies and supply chain and people being trained, all working together, which collectively minimises our impact and increases our focus on environment,” he says.

For Padgett, compliance issues of the past became a catalyst for everything the company now does, focusing on the environment, whether it’s people, processes or technology. “It’s all now considered when we’re thinking about minimising our impact on the environment,” he says. Challenges remain, of course; but for John Padgett, the task is to meet them head on.