Cruise lines ditching plastic: an environmental win for the sector?

As Hurtigruten announces plans to become the world's first plastic-free cruise company, more and more lines are following suit. What are cruise lines doing to get rid of plastic on board, and why are they jumping on the bandwagon now? Joe Baker finds out

or years, plastic has steadily seeped into the world’s oceans, marring coastlines with floating refuse and creating a major hazard for sea life. Large pieces of plastic can choke and entangle turtles and seabirds, while tiny plastic nanoparticles clog the stomachs of creatures who mistake it for food.

Conservationists predict that without an industry-wide change in approach, plastic pollution in the sea will only get worse in the future. Environmental groups claim that an estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic winds its way into the sea annually, and scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish.

Several cruise lines have announced their commitment to banish plastic on board in order to reduce the sector’s contribution to this global blight. This year, Hurtigruten announced that it aims to become the world’s first plastic-free cruise company. Since the start of July, the company has been purging its custom-built expedition vessels of single-use plastic items - including straws, stirrers, cups, lids, cutlery and aprons – in a bid to set an example for the industry to follow.

“By getting rid of single-use plastic on board all ships already by this summer, we will hopefully get others to follow,” said Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam in a press release. “It is possible to act now, and the oceans do not deserve more hesitation.”

Other major operators, including Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Fred Olsen are set to ban single-use plastics on board their vessels. But for environmentalists, the path to this point has been much longer than necessary.

Image credit: SeeCee / Shutterstock.com

The war on straws

The disposable nature of single-use plastics has a devastating impact on the environment, with straws being a particular bugbear. It’s estimated that the UK uses 8.5 billion straws a year, according to the Marine Conservation Society, and plastic straws are one of the top ten items found in beach clean-ups.

Plastic straws have already been banned on cruise ships by a number of operators, including P&O Cruises Australia, Azamara Club Cruises and Captain Cook Cruises, while other lines, such as Carnival Cruise Lines, have made them available only on request.

However, Hurtigruten’s plans show that the extent of plastic adoption runs well beyond straws. Almost 400,000 plastic cups and 826,000 single-use packages of butter are deployed on the line’s vessels every year, while the weight of plastic aprons used by staff amounts to 4,300kg.

Some cruise lines have been more transparent about their plastic bans than others. P&O Cruises and Cunard say they aim to eliminate single-use plastics from their fleets by 2022, but Royal Caribbean has not yet indicated when its own ban will go into effect.

Image credit: Bjoern Wylezich / Shutterstock.com

Educating passengers

Hurtigruten is hoping to extend its ban to hotels and travel operations across the company’s portfolio. As part of the process, it is challenging its suppliers to cut the use of plastic.

“No one can win the war on plastic alone without allies. This is why we implement high demands on our suppliers,” said Skjeldam. “Our goal is to become the world’s first plastic-free shipping company. This is our first step.”

“No one can win the war on plastic alone without allies"

In addition to blanket bans on on-board plastics, there also needs to be a greater emphasis on educating passengers about best practices, as well as the impact of plastic pollution on the environment.

Hurtigruten is one of the members of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO), which has run beach cleanings in the Arctic for almost two decades. AECO is working with UN Environment as part of its Clean Seas campaign, with funding from the Svalbard Environmental Protection Fund and the Norwegian Environment Agency.

This year, AECO hired a new environmental agent to increase the number of cruise passengers involved in beach cleaning efforts, as well as share best practices to reduce plastic consumption on expedition ships.

Attracting the environmentally minded consumer

The plastic reduction effort is already well underway on land, so why are cruise operators only jumping on the bandwagon now? The reason, some say, is far from altruistic.

Marcie Keever is the director of the Oceans and Vessels Program for environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth (FOE). She says that cruise lines are under increasing pressure to give off an environmentally sound image, given consistent reports about the industry’s failings to reduce its carbon output, and so bringing ‘lip service’ to plastic pollution makes sense.

“The cruise lines’ impact on the environment seems to just be getting bigger"

“When it comes to the cruise industry, the ocean is their business and destinations are their business, and so in our opinion they should reduce the most,” Keever says. “As more and more pollution happens, people aren’t going to want to go to these destinations. There aren’t going to be any more places where there isn’t plastic where you go snorkelling!”

Keever argues that there are still major transparency issues with an industry that often needs whistle-blowers to reveal the extent of its waste disposal practices. What’s more, the growth in size of cruise vessels seems to run contrary to the green message they portray.

“[Cruise lines’] impact on the environment, whether it’s the islands that they own or in-ocean [vessels], seems to just be getting bigger. Their ships keep getting bigger and more passengers are going further afield,” Keever says.

Moves to ban plastic are welcome, but ultimately organisations like FOE need to continue to put the pressure on cruise lines to optimise recycling on board, as well as reduce their footprint when it comes to air pollution, CO2 emissions and wastewater. FOE will continue to release its cruise report card, which ranks cruise operators based on their environmental performance, in a bid to get passengers to consider the impact of their chosen operator.

“I do think that more and more passengers are really taking into account the industry's footprint and their commitment and how clean they are,” says Keever. “We're pushing back against their business model and we’re going to continue to push that they do a better job, rather than stick to the status quo.”

Cover image credit: ginger_polina_bublik / Shutterstock.com