How cruise ships are dodging environmental rules to pollute the ocean

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Cruise ships are increasingly one of the most popular vacation choices. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, the ships are expected to carry more than 30 million passengers in 2019, nearly double the number of people they transported just a decade earlier. Unfortunately, as these giant, moving cities traverse the seas, the cruise ships leave a massive amount of pollution in their wake. That situation is only going to get worse as cruise companies start using cheat devices to in order to skirt environmental laws, according to a report from The Independent.

Remember the Volkswagen scandal, where the German automaker found itself in a world of trouble after regulators discovered "defeat devices" that hid the true amount of emissions produced by the company's diesel engine vehicles? Imagine that, but at sea — and it doesn't seem to be illegal. According to the report, major shipping companies have started to embrace so-called "cheat devices" that negate the environmental rules that prevent ships from polluting the air with sulfur emissions by simply re-routing the fumes and dumping them in the water instead.

The result is a considerable amount more pollution being distributed directly into our oceans. According to the Non-profit environmental analysis group International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), these devices emit about 45 tons of contaminants for every ton of fuel burned — and cruise ships can burn through as much as 250 tons of fuel per day. Included in that waste is carcinogens — substances like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals that are linked to cancer. Troublingly, the devices result in even more pollution than would be caused by simply avoiding their use. These cheat devices are projected to increase fuel consumption by about two percent, which leads to an uptick in the amount of total emissions.

These tools, called open-loop scrubbers, are becoming more common on ships that run on oil, and are only expected to become more widely used as the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) new emissions standards go into effect on January 1, 2020. The rule requires ships to switch to cleaner fuel sources that produce considerably less sulfur — unless they simply cheat the process by using these scrubbers to avoid it completely. A total of 3,756 ships already have the devices on them, according to DNV GL, the world’s largest ship classification company. It's projected that as many 4,000 ships will be operating with the scrubbers by the time the new law goes into effect. Scrubbers often costing millions of dollars simply to install, and the shipping industry has spent an estimated $12 billion just to cheat the law, according to The Independent. The cruise industry is starting to follow suit.

The ICCT projected that about half of all cruise ships will soon use the devices. That is incredibly bad news for our waters and the wildlife that inhabit them. Cruise ships are already massive polluters. European Federation for Transport and Environment, a non-profit group that focuses on the environmental impact of transportation services, revealed in a recent analysis that Carnival, the largest cruise operator in the world, produces 10 times more air pollution in a year than all of the cars in Europe. Royal Caribbean, the second-largest cruise company, produces four times the emissions than all of Europe's fleet of vehicles. This is because most cruise ships are powered by diesel engines and gas turbines that rely on incredibly dirty fuel sources that are high in sulfur. The companies received D and F grades from the environmental advocacy group Friends of Earth for their efforts to reduce their air pollution.

The situation won't be made better with defeat devices, though it may technically limit the amount of sulfur being sent up into the air. Instead, all of that waste will end up in the ocean, where the effects could be devastating. Sulfur, when mixed with water and air, resulted in sulfuric acid, which is the primary component in acid rain. Acid rain is extremely destructive to the environment. It can be responsible for deforestation, do damage to building materials and completely destroy aquatic life. It can kill adult fish or prevent them from producing eggs, doing damage to the long-term viability of a species. Research conducted by the National Science Foundation suggests that acid rain has a disproportionately negative effect on near-shore ocean waters, even if it only plays a minor role in making the ocean more acidic on a global scale. It is linked with the overgrowth of phytoplankton and other plants that cause harmful algae blooms and the creation of oxygen-depleted dead zones in the oceans. This harms sea creatures and wildlife that would typically live in the regions. It is projected that with the current level of sulfur being dumped into our oceans, the ocean could see a 100 to 150 percent increase in acidity by the end of the century — more acidic than the waters have ever been. That is problematic for all kinds of reasons, but will especially threaten the livelihood of corals, oysters and other shelled creatures that are likely to be weakened by the change to the ocean's acid balance.

Add that to all of that the fact that the average cruise ship produces about 210,000 gallons of sewage every single week that is also being discarded in the water. That's along with one million gallons of so-called graywater — used water from things like sinks, bathtubs, showers, laundry, and galleys — that is also dumped each week. According to a report in the Pacific Standard, the average person on a cruise ship produces a carbon footprint that is about three times what it would be on land.

Part of the appeal of a cruise is seeing the beautiful, clear waters of tropical areas. That won't be the case for long if the companies operating ships continue to pollute with such reckless abandon. They are spending a fortune to continue to dump their waste rather than change their ways, so remember where their priorities are before stepping on board.