At dusk the vacationing couple stood on a balcony of a Princess Cruise ship videotaping a brilliant sunset. Suddenly a hatch opened below deck and crew members tossed some 20 plastic trash bags filled with garbage into the sea.
The clandestine and illegal dumping became the infamous star of the videotape the couple turned over to the US Department of Justice and the FBI. The result was a $500,000 fine against Princess Cruises.
This 1993 incident was a wake-up call for more vigorous efforts by many cruise lines to curtail garbage and oil dumping at sea.
As the winter season moves into high gear, nearly every cruise line today, including Princess, has adopted environmental policies that are designed to regulate or stop ocean dumping, and comply with international laws already on the books.
But when ships leave port in festive goodbyes, implementation of all laws at sea remains a challenge. Last month, five ships of Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises were convicted of releasing waste oil in bilge water off the coast of Puerto Rico. The line also falsified records stating that the oil had been removed from the bilge water.
Several cruise lines, such as Holland American and Princess Cruises, now have self-imposed "zero discharge" policies, which exceed the garbage disposal laws established by the 1987 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution for Ships (known as MARPOL). Nearly 90 nations have signed the convention.
"Yes, cruise lines are much more responsible these days," says Charles Bookman, director of the Marine Board of the National Research Council in Washington, D.C. "Adverse publicity and heavy fines have caught their attention," he says.
After an annual passenger growth rate for cruise ships of around 9 percent between 1980 and 1994, growth has slowed, and will probably taper off to around 6 percent for 1996. Some 4.4 million Americans took cruises in l995. Eleven new ships were added by cruise lines last year.
Because these ships are floating cities, they generate substantial waste. Carnival Cruises, one of the big three in the industry, calculated that during an average month, three of their ships, with 2,040 passengers each, recycle a total of 88,000 pounds of cardboard, 70,000 pounds of glass, 14,500 pounds of steel, and 700 pounds of plastic.
"We now use reusable heavy plastic ware on deck and no more disposable plates," says Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokesperson for Carnival Cruises.
"We get accused of being cheap because we don't provide amenities in the cabins like shampoo and conditioner, but it cuts down on those little plastic bottles," she says, "and because we carry over a million passengers a year, the little things add up."
And for Princess Cruises, no more bon voyage parties with balloons and streamers flowing from dock to ship.and tumbling into the water "All that is gone," says Julie Benson, a spokeswoman for Princess Cruises. "We make it festive in other ways."
A Holland American ship can generate an average of 8 tons of refuse during a seven-day cruise. All the waste is processed on board to be stored for land disposal or recycling and can be stored for 10 days. Four of Holland American's new ships have state-of-the-art garbage processing plants. All waste - food, paper, plastic, and cardboard - is incinerated at sea.
On most cruises, the expectation is to have an exciting, romantic, and memorable trip in luxury, with plenty of amenities. The average age of cruise passengers is about 50, a demographic group that will increase in size in the coming decades.
More serious kinds of cruises are gaining in popularity. Smaller, more informal trips focus on educational or environmental themes and don't include much night life, fine cuisine, or formal wear at dinners.
"Most cruises these days are still cruises of consumption," says Kate Hitch, project director for a consumer monitoring program for the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, D.C. "There is a lot of food, and you get taken to beautiful locations and pampered along the way."
Aboard a Princess Cruise, passengers on a typical seven-day cruise will consume a ton and a half of cheese, five-and-a-half tons of meat, and 500 bottles of champagne.
Decades ago most waste from cruise ships was dumped overboard, but refuse along beaches in the early 1980s gained attention as more countries became increasingly concerned about the environment.
What is banned under the MARPOL laws is dumping any plastic materials from ships anywhere in the oceans. Food wastes, when broken down into small pieces, can be dumped 12 nautical miles from the nearest land. Items such as packing materials or dunnage has to be ground first and then disposed of 25 miles from land. Ground glass, metal, and crockery can be dumped legally also at the 12-mile range.
"After the video incident, Princess did a through job of taking on corporate responsibility and going the whole way to change," says Ms. Hitch. At the time of the incident, Princess was aware of the dumping laws and had on-board procedures that were in compliance with the laws. "What happened that night," says Mr. Bookman, "indicated the issues of technology, behavior, and culture that come into play."
The Princess ship was an older vessel, not outfitted with the latest technology to handle waste. Usually crew members took the waste in bags down an elevator to a sorting room where some of the waste was incinerated, a common practice on cruise ships.
But the elevator wasn't working that night, and instead of lugging the bags up and down the stairs, the crew members decided to heave the bags overboard just as the video camera was rolling.
"The videotape made us redouble our efforts to understand that training was a vital part of the process," says Ms. Benson, "All the latest equipment means nothing if the crew isn't trained."
Princess went on to adopt a "zero dumping" policy, hired the first environmental expert on a cruise ship payroll, tightened sorting procedures and training, and increased waste minimization including working with suppliers to reduce plastic packaging. "We have eliminated 10 million pieces of plastic a year through the program," says Benson
Recently, Princess won an environmental award co-sponsored by Smithsonian Magazine and the American Society of Travel Agents.
While cruise ships are becoming more responsible at sea, the waste they store on board eventually has to go somewhere. "When a ship calls at a world class port like Rotterdam, handling the garbage is built into the fee that the ship pays for using the port," says Bookman. "In the US, we don't have that kind of rule." Nor do many of the ports of call in the Caribbean, or other fragile environments like Alaska."
Smaller countries do not have the infrastructure to handle waste, and many do not want it by choice. "This is one of the reasons why cruise ships have decided to deal with waste on their own," says Hitch.