Whispers and waste

Frank A. Campbell says that idyllic cruises bring pollution in their wake, and describes what is being done to clean it up

Few literary and artistic creations are more alluring than brochures inviting would-be vacationers to cruise on Caribbean waters. The pages whisper enticing promises of limitless grace, space and freedom in a world which, it seems, cannot be explained without evoking the superlative.

Dip a finger beneath this magnificent surface, though, and another reality emerges. It is an ecological story written in rather more murky characters.

The very statistics tell of a fragile ecology under stress. The Wider Caribbean Region, stretching from Florida to French Guiana, receives 63,000 calls from ships each year, and they generate 82,000 tonnes of garbage. About 77 per cent of all ship waste comes from cruise vessels.

The average cruise ship carries 600 crew and 1,400 passengers. Cruise ships are getting bigger – 60,000 or 70,000 tonnes in past years, 100,000 tonnes today, 110,000 in a year or so. People are lining up for Caribbean cruises. And there is the economic pull. Small islands, traditionally dependent on banana exports, are busy erecting berths for cruise ships.

Already an average of 200 cruises take 400,000 visitors to Caribbean ports every month. The environmental stress begins when the first shampoo or champagne bottle is emptied or the first half-eaten steak is retrieved from the table. On average, passengers on a cruise ship each account for 3.5 kilograms of garbage daily – compared with the 0.8 kilograms each generated by the less well-endowed folk on shore.

However, disposal, not quantity, is the real issue. Amy Silva wrote in the April/May 1995 issue of Eco Aruba: ‘From the very first moment human beings sailed the seven seas, they have used the international waters of our planet as mankind’s biggest dump.’ A report called The Caribbean: A Very Special Area, produced under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) says there are, on sea as on land, basically two kinds of waste: garbage, and oily waste generated by the operation of the vessels.

Pollution and health
Pollution affects the sea, called the Caribbean’s greatest economic asset, in many ways. Beaches are less attractive if polluted by garbage brought by strong currents or dumped in the local harbour. Fish are killed by oil and other waste. Other animals get injured or die from being entangled in plastic ropes or eating plastic products. Marine pollution is also becoming a significant human health concern.

Then there are the coral reefs – a major attraction and part of a fragile ecosystem. Caribbean reefs, 9 per cent of the world’s total, are affected, some believe, not only by oil spills but also by supposedly harmless ‘grey water’ – the by-product of baths, showers and other cleaning activities.

Thankfully, the law has been coming to the rescue of the environment. The Cayman Islands was the first Caribbean country to impose severe fines against cruise lines for violating waste-disposal requirements or other environmental laws.

In February 1993 violations by two separate ships of Regency Cruise Lines led United States District Court Judge Ralph W. Nimmons Jr. to impose a fine of a quarter of a million dollars. A public apology, ordered by the judge, included the company’s ‘hope that our guilty plea will be a lesson to others that environmental laws must be respected’. Earlier, Princess Cruises was ordered to pay half a million dollars for dumping plastic bags: the passenger who videotaped it doing so was awarded half the fine.

The impetus for such legal initiatives may have come from the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. Approved in 1973 and amended by protocol in 1978, it is called MARPOL 73/78 and administered by the IMO. It is supposed to operate through five annexes containing detailed provisions on how and where ship waste should be disposed of. Four are in force: Annexes 1 (Oily Waste), 2 (Noxious Liquid Substances), 3 (Harmful Substances), and 5 (Garbage). Annex 4 (Sewage) is not. Why? One expert says Caribbean and other countries are incapable of dealing with their own sewage, let alone that from ships. Many cruise ships, he says, have higher standards than the countries they visit.
The law has been coming to the rescue of the environment...

Is MARPOL working? Seems so. Domestic environmental laws under which cruise ships are fined largely reflect MARPOL’s provisions. The industry has made noticeable changes. Princess Cruises has come a long way since paying that fine. It has instituted a ‘zero discharge policy’ and switched to less wasteful products. Out with plastic shampoo bottles. In with paper containers. Out with excessive aluminium containers. In with soft-drink fountains.

Lt. Cdr. Curtis Roach, Regional Maritime Safety Adviser to the Caribbean Community, notes that newer ships have built-in waste-management systems, including incinerators and recycling centres. Some have complex sewage treatment processes and systems to preserve waste fuel for recycling at port. The 1992 Earth Summit has been credited with getting cruise ships and their suppliers to take action.

Old ships cannot easily convert, but, says Cdr. Roach, they are not likely to last anyway: they cannot compete against newer vessels.

Much to do
Governments also recognize that they still have much to do. There is little point in having cruise ships separate recyclable material from real garbage if regional ports cannot handle it either. One project designed to address this issue is being implemented by the six tiny island governments of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). The OECS Solid and Ship-Generated Waste Management Project, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and other donors, has several facets: receptacles for garbage brought in by ships; proper sanitary landfills to replace the current insanitary garbage dumps; a $1.50 levy charged to each cruise line passenger to help finance these services.

The levy was only brought in after a war of words, with cruise lines threatening to by-pass certain ports and the World Bank encouraging governments to stand firm. Project Manager David Simmons says the proper treatment and burying of waste will reduce the amount of garbage blowing about, the proliferation of vectors and vermin and the smoke and fire – which have all affected people in nearby communities. This project has been described as a model for the Wider Caribbean Region because of its integrated approach to ship- and land-generated waste.

These, however, are tiny steps compared with what is needed if the Caribbean is to benefit fully from MARPOL. The recently concluded Wider Caribbean Initiative on Ship-Generated Waste (WCISW) laid the groundwork for a larger regional effort. Between these two initiatives is the CARICOM programme led by Cdr. Roach, which includes a number of small non-CARICOM states but not all the 22 Wider Caribbean countries.

The Caribbean has been designated as a Special Area under MARPOL’s Annex 5, putting the region in a select group including the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Red Sea and the Antarctic, where the dumping of garbage – apart from ground food waste – is totally prohibited. Yet, this more stringent protection has not yet been triggered in the Caribbean. It will exist only on paper as long as the region lacks adequate facilities to receive on land the garbage that ships will be prevented from dumping at sea.

Frank A. Campbell, formerly Ambassador of Guyana to Cuba and Minister of Information, was Foreign Affairs Officer of the Caribbean Community Secretariat. He is currently President of ARISE!, an Ottawa-based communications consulting firm, and writes regularly on international development issues.

PHOTOGRAPH: Jesus Carlos/UNEP/Topham Picturepoint

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Editorial M. T. El-Ashry | Let action... | The size of the problem | Looking good... | Vanishing islands | Whispers and waste | At a glance | Competition | Preserving paradise | Coral grief | ...biodiversity and beauty | Grassroots | GEF - helping small islands | Making a difference | UNEP - new books | Small is vulnerable | Measuring vulnerability | Exporting solutions | New friends in...

Complementary articles in other issues:
Ralf Corsten: Where the buck stops (Tourism) 1999
Arthur C. Clarke: Looking glass world (Oceans) 1998
John Prescott: Seven threats to the seven seas (Oceans) 1998