Green Travel Magzine

Cruising Carelessly: How Cruise Ships Negatively Impact the Environment

Although cruise ship tourism is a popular choice among travelers, with an estimated 26 million customers using cruise ships in 2018, the industry has significant negative environmental impacts as a result of air pollution, waste production, and social effects on port destinations. Not only does an individual passenger’s carbon footprint triple in size when taking a cruise, but a cruise ship can emit pollution equivalent to the amount produced by 700 trucks and the particulate matter of one million cars

Amidst growing environmental concern at both the global urban and national scale, cruise ship tourism has received international attention. Most recently, the port city of Venice announced the permanent ban of large cruise ships in the Venetian lagoon. The anti-cruise campaign led by the ‘No Grandi Navi’ (No Big Ships) action group finally achieved its goal of minimizing cruise ship tourism to Venice as the environmental consequences threatened to add the city to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. Although Venice received widespread press regarding the impact of cruise ship tourism due to the progression of its longtime environmental crisis, cities around the globe continue to face severe challenges caused by these mega-vessels: 10% of pollution in France’s city of Marseilles can be attributed to cruise liners, Barcelona became Europe’s most polluted port in 2017 due to the 32 tons of sulfur oxide deposited in its waters by cruise ships, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef faced significant damage due to a 2018 cruise ship food-waste spill. 

While the cruise industry continues to grow in terms of both the physical size of ships and the sheer number of traveling vessels, so too does the environmental impact of these ‘floating cities’. 

Air Pollution, Sewage, and Social Impact 

In 2017, the world’s largest operator of luxury cruises, Carnival Corporation, emitted ten times more sulphur dioxide around Europe’s coasts than all European cars. The release of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere is linked to the formation of acid rain, damage to trees and plants at high concentration, and can affect breathing and harm the human respiratory system. Furthermore, in comparison to an airplane, cruise ships emit up to four times more carbon dioxide per passenger. Since a cruise ship’s engine runs twenty-four hours to maintain the spa, restaurant, activity, and hotel amenities, a mid-sized cruise ship uses as much as 150 tonnes of fuel per day. 

Air pollution is not a cruise ship’s only output; waste production presents an additional environmental challenge caused by the cruise industry. Waste is released in three major forms: greywater – the non-biological waste from kitchens, sinks, showers, and cleaning; blackwater – the human waste; and solid waste –  including items such as cardboard, plastic, cans, and glass that are typically incinerated on ships. The hazardous waste from on-board activities, bilge water composed of seawater, oil, and chemicals, and ballast water containing plants, viruses, and bacteria all cause extensive damage to aquatic ecosystems due to their toxicity to marine organisms and impact on overall ocean pollution. Finally, a cruise ship’s only regulation with regard to discarding sewage is that the waste be released three miles from the shore or twelve miles offshore if untreated. Cruise ships are furthermore not required to acquire permits to dump waste nor are these vessels required to report the amount of waste that is released. 

The physical environmental consequences of cruise ship tourism are evident, however the industry has also had significant social impact on destination communities. Cruise ships can cause negative economic impacts for residents including increased housing and land prices, higher taxes, and inflation that can affect the quality of life and economic landscape for people in local communities. Furthermore, the amount of travelers who disembark from ships and explore at docked destinations create overcrowding, over-burdened infrastructure that can include damage to culturally and historically important sites, and disregard for the local environment through littering, noise pollution, and overutilization of resources.   

Considering the range of negative environmental and social impacts provoked by cruise ship tourism, is there a resource that can aid travelers in gaining an accessible understanding of the growing cruise industry today as major cruise lines make claims of pursuing environmentally-conscious practices?  

Source: Peter Hansen

Friends of the Earth (Cruise Ship Report Card) 

Friends of the Earth is a non-governmental organization that works to defend the Environmental Protection Agency, protect organic agriculture and increase the accessibility of sustainable food, promote clean energy solutions, and support community ocean-protection efforts amidst the climate crisis. Friends of the Earth recognizes that the majority of vacationers are unaware that cruise ship tourism is more harmful to the environment than most other forms of travel. In order to hold the cruise industry accountable while increasing public awareness of the impact of cruise ships on the climate, the organization has released a yearly Cruise Ship Report Card since 2009. The 2021 Cruise Ship Report Card ranks 18 major cruise lines and 202 cruise ships based on the criteria of sewage treatment, air pollution reduction, water quality compliance, transparency, and criminal violations.

To view the 2021 Cruise Ship Report Card, visit

Can the Cruise Industry ‘Go Green’? 

The cruise industry has had significant environmental repercussions, however there are some efforts through which cruise ships can attempt to become more sustainable. Advanced water-waste treatment technology can help make water safer rather than contaminating the aquatic environment and affecting marine life. Waste reduction can be achieved through material sorting, elimination of single-use plastics, and updated waste removal methods. Furthermore, considering the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, cruise ships can shift toward using cleaner exhaust through dual-fuel or hybrid engines. While there are more sustainable alternatives to the existing function and design of cruise ships, the cruise industry today has been a growing environmental burden due to air and ocean contamination, production and discarding of waste, and the economic and social impact on local communities. 

Source: Anthony Metcalfe

ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.

Want to Learn More? 

Cruise Ship Pollution Is Causing Serious Health And Environmental Problems – Forbes 

Italian Government Officially Bans Cruise Ships in Venice – ArchDaily 

Sulfur Dioxide Basics – United States Environmental Protection Agency 

You thought planes burned a lot of carbon? Say hello to cruise ships. – Grist 

A cruise ship’s emissions are the same as 1 million cars – CBC 

Cruise Ships Are Legally Allowed to Dump Billions of Gallons of Raw Sewage in the Ocean – Motor Biscuit 

What is Bilge Water? Learn How Ships Store & Treat Waste Water in Bilge Wells – Bright Hub Engineering 

Cruise Industry: Benefits and Impacts on the Surrounding – The Motorways Of the Sea Digital Multichannel Platform 

Managing the Impacts of Cruise Ship Tourism – 106 Group 

Cruise Ship Pollution: A Tale of Titanic Tyranny – Geeky Explorer 

7 Places Being Ruined By Cruise Ships – 

Cruise Ship Report Card – Friends of the Earth 

Caroline Rispoli
Caroline is a passionate traveler whose interest in sustainability began with a trip to Scandinavia. She currently attends university in Boston, Massachusetts where she studies a major in Political Science and International Affairs and a minor in Urban Studies. Attending school in Boston has made Caroline fall in love with city-living, and in her free time she can be found hiking, running, exploring, or planning her next adventure!