Never has the cruise industry found itself more in the crosshairs over environmental performance. Amid stricter standards to reduce sulphur dioxide and other greenhouse emissions – as stipulated by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – operators have made clear investments in new clean engine room technologies.

Such efforts have not gone unnoticed. On the back of its decision to install a new exhaust filtration system across its North American fleet, Carnival Cruise Lines was the recent recipient of The New Economy‘s Clean Tech Award for Best Marine Solutions Company.

However, sustainability extends beyond the confines of the engine room. In keeping with the wants of today’s guests, who are more clued-up on ecological matters, operators are required to display their green credentials accordingly.

"Modern society, as a whole, is better informed on environmental issues than ever – people want to see responsible choices being made," says Monika Griefahn, chief sustainability officer for AIDA Cruises.

"This especially relates to the cruise industry and its guests. As a result, it has invested heavily in technical solutions to minimise its ecological impact."

Since 2007, AIDA, a Carnival-owned brand, has published an annual sustainability report, listing in detail the measures it has made to ensure a greener performance. Much of these relate directly to shifting operational behaviours, including waste discharge, recycling and energy usage.

Griefahn, a co-founder of Greenpeace Germany, expounds on AIDA’s notable step changes. For instance, all ships are fitted with energy-saving LED lighting; cabins have air recirculation systems, which include waste-heat recovery, reducing energy consumption by as much as 20%; and the group even invested recently in a new cradle-to-cradle, recyclable carpet.

"There are probably too many to list," Griefahn says. "But by implementing these measures each and every year – whether they are innovative heat-recovery systems, LED lamps or nearly 100% rubbish sorting – we are making our ships more environmentally friendly. I should also add that this includes the optimisation of routings and speed reduction, which reduce our energy use significantly."

Environmental concerns

Indeed, AIDA’s efforts seem to mirror those of a sector actively looking to reduce its collective environmental footprint. Other initiatives to have gained traction of late include everything from streamlined ecological hull coatings – said to save as much as 5% on fuel usage – to reusable towels and low-flow restrictive shower heads.

Perhaps a more noticeable presence on board cruise ships in recent years has been that of the environmental officer. Charged with the responsibility of not only evincing evidence of on-board sustainable practices – once demonstrated through a solitary video presentation – they also relay to guests how they themselves can contribute to the green running of a ship.

"Environmental officers play an important role when it comes to raising awareness of sustainability among the crew and guests," explains Griefahn. "This is why we introduced a sustainability talk on board in 2013. It allows guests to understand how they can support us in saving water and energy."

Does this also constitute on-the-job training for staff?

"Yes," affirms Griefahn. "Aside from our environmental officers, who receive regular training, all other staff are informed on sustainability activities. We actively encourage them to get engaged. For example, we founded a sustainability committee, with representatives from all departments. Their role is to ensure that continuous improvements are being made."

Looking back

The Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) has also championed the growing deployment of green initiatives among its members.

Writing in World Cruise Industry Review last year, Bud Darr, chair of the association’s environmental committee, explained that "the commitment to employing sound environmental practices has never been stronger", and that "environmentally friendly practices go beyond what is obvious to our guests".

In addition to Carnival, CLIA has cited the recent efforts of Royal Caribbean, whose ships contain tinted windows to keep them cooler, reducing the load on air-conditioning systems. The same goes for Celebrity Cruises’ new refrigeration practice – chilled river rocks are used instead of ice, cutting down on the amount of water and energy needed in the conversion process.

Yet, such glowing praise has also been countered by the occasional voice of dissent, particularly when it comes to the topic of waste and sewage discharge.

According to a report published by Friends of the Earth International, the world’s largest federation of environmental organisations, cruise lines continue to fall short in their disposal of waste.

The paper, based on data gathered from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and which grades lines on their performance, claims that the industry was accountable for more than a billion gallons of sewage dumped into the ocean last year.

"Perhaps a more noticeable presence on board cruise ships in recent years has been that of the environmental officer."

"It’s time for cruise ships to stop using our oceans as a toilet," said Marcie Keveer, Friends of the Earth’s oceans and vessels programme director, upon its publication. "This is an industry worth billions of dollars that could install the most advanced sewage treatment technology available for the cost of a single can of Coke per passenger".

Strong words. Excluding Disney Cruise Line, which was awarded an "A grade" for sewage treatment, a number of operators were singled out and taken to task in the report; they have subsequently contested its conclusions.

Issuing a rejoinder in the Miami Herald, Roger Frizzell, a spokesman for Carnival, which was awarded an overall score of C-, argued that the report was "hardly a realistic grading system, given the complexity of a cruise line’s sustainability systems and requirements."

CLIA took even greater umbrage, with an official mouthpiece arguing that "it does a disservice to consumers that may wish to obtain credible information on the responsible environmental practices of cruise liners".

Furthermore, in December 2013, MSC Cruises found itself embroiled in allegations of unauthorised waste disposal after a Brazilian news channel displayed footage of staff apparently jettisoning refuse bags off the country’s coastline. The group is presently conducting an internal investigation into the incident.

However, according to CLIA, there is still ample evidence to suggest that cruise companies have significantly lowered effluent levels through in-depth waste disposal programmes, now headed by designated teams.

This has perhaps been best exemplified by Norwegian Cruise Line, which last year invested in a new waste management programme, purportedly able to offload refuse at a port in under an hour. Currently prototyped on the Norwegian Epic, the group’s "live-load" model replaces dockside open-top containers with soft-sided curtain trailers, facilitating greater recycling and cleaner offloads.

Commenting in June 2013 on the initiative, co-developed with environmental solutions provider Waste Management, Norwegian director of environmental operations Randall Fiebrandt said that it had created "a viable, long-term model" and that the single point of contact method "streamlines the entire process".

Yet, critics, such as Keever, are still insisting that more stringent regulations be put in place. In her eyes, the environmental impact of ships has been "under-regulated and unregulated for many years".

Raising awareness

The aforementioned areas of sewage and waste treatment systems might well be something for the IMO to look into further. However, regarding the overall environmental awareness on board today’s vessels, Griefahn reinstates her belief that it is at an all-time high.

"Aside from the ongoing investments in technology, the industry has intensified its dialogue with guests, and is becoming more transparent and informative," she says. "So it does go way beyond the engine room – this also concerns everything from offering sustainable products on board, such as natural cosmetics at the spa, to making sure that our land excursions are as environmentally friendly as possible."

The mention of transparency is arguably the cornerstone of the entire debate for the cruise sector. Regulations and mandates may drive corporate policies, but surely the best means by which operators can convey a bona fide green agenda is through demonstrating that such measures are being undertaken voluntarily and innately.

One gets the feeling that the players able to do this best will be the ones that receive the greatest approval from industry watchdogs and passengers alike.