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Nobody in their right mind would say that cruise ships are good for the environment. They're huge, after all. They take an enormous amount of resources and energy to create, and on average their mileage is something like 30 feet to the gallon. If we're talking carbon footprint, forget it: Nobody makes shoes that big.

But there is a little more to the story: Over the past decade, cruise lines have been experimenting with all sorts of environmental technologies and initiatives, from advanced wastewater treatment and alternative energy generation to new and more efficient hull forms, engines, air conditioning, lighting, and so on. It's a matter of survival: In today's world, corporations, governments, and average citizens are all coming to realize the necessity of sound, sustainable environmental practices. For corporations, fears about the costs of addressing climate change are giving way to the realization that the situation actually affords great opportunities -- to achieve cost savings through efficiency improvements, to enhance their reputation by being part of the solution rather than the problem, and to shore up their long-term business outlook by embracing the future instead of the past. Nobody's expecting cruise lines (or any other major industry, for that matter) to transform themselves overnight, but in the end, it's the leanest, greenest companies that will come out on top. In business as in nature, evolution favors the most adaptable.

Making Change from the Inside

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to talk with Jamie Sweeting, environmental stewardship and global chief environmental officer at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., parent company of Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and Azamara Club Cruises. A former officer at Conservation International's Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (where he served variously as business advisor and senior director of the travel and leisure program), Sweeting's background centers around ecotourism and working with businesses to promote conservation. We began our talk discussing the basic perception of cruisers regarding RCCL's environmental practices.

Matt Hannafin: I'm always hearing from the different cruise lines about their environmental initiatives, but then I get onboard and things don't seem much different than they did a dozen years ago. What gives?

Jamie Sweeting: That's a question we get all the time, and the answer is that things just aren't always obvious. For instance, because we don't have recycling bins in the staterooms, people make the presumption that we don't recycle. But the reality is that we have a dedicated waste-handling facility on every ship, and we have dedicated staff whose responsibility it is to separate all of the different waste streams.

MH: You do all of that onboard?

JS: Yeah, we separate glass, we crush the glass, and we keep it in a cold-storage room (for public health reasons) until we get to a port where they'll be able to recycle the glass. We take all the tin and aluminum cans, we crush them, bale them into squares, and package them onto pallets which then get offloaded for recycling. We save our waste vegetable oil from the deep fryers, and, for example, up in Alaska we're actually donating that to a local women's cooperative -- the local fishermen's wives club -- and they are reconstituting it as a bio-diesel. The point is, just because there are no recycling bins on the ships, that doesn't mean recycling doesn't happen. Waste to landfill per ship in RCCL's fleets is about 1.5 pounds per person, per day -- about a third of what it is for the typical American on land. We're able to achieve much greater recycling efforts than the typical family because we're able to manage the waste streams far more effectively.

MH: So all of your ships, across the three brands, have those kinds of onboard facilities?

JS: Yes, though recycling facilities on the newest ships are more advanced. On Celebrity's Solstice-class ships, for example, we have newer equipment that allows us to maximize the amount of things that we're able to recycle. We have these things that can depressurize aerosol cans, for example, so they can be recycled as scrap metal rather than disposed of as hazardous waste. We can also remove mercury or other potentially hazardous chemicals from the compact fluorescent light bulbs -- which are really energy efficient themselves -- and then crush the glass.

MH: I know Celebrity's Solstice-class ships and Royal's Oasis class have solar panels on their top decks to help generate onboard electricity, and that they both have optimized hulls to reduce drag, and all that, but can you talk about any other hardware initiatives you're looking into?

JS: We made a very bold commitment to reduce our carbon footprint by a third by 2015, and we're putting a lot of time and effort and resources into research and development, into finding new technologies that could be applied to reduce the amount of air emissions and maximize the amount of energy we're producing from the fuel that we consume. We're exploring all the options. We even looked at a company out of Israel that designs these things called SkySails [huge towing kites that unfurl on a tether from the front of the ship and operate like sails, catching the wind], and we spent a lot of time looking at whether they were practical and feasible. The challenge is that they tend to optimize between 12 to 14 knots, and there's not a lot of itineraries where our ships only go 12 to 14 knots. They need to go between 16 and 22 knots to make their destinations.

MH: I heard somewhere that you were testing onboard wind turbines too.

JS: That's true, we've tested two different wind turbines on Celebrity ships, but both of them blew over. Luckily they didn't blow overboard -- because we had them tied down with rather large cables -- but both of them were blown [pauses]. . . . If you think about it, if you've got a ship going 22 knots and you go into a 25-knot wind, you've got basically 50 knots knocking around that thing. They're just not built for a marine application. We've taken things that were designed for shore-side application and tried to apply them on a ship, but right now they're not fit for our purpose. What excites me about it, though, is that we're a company that's willing to try those things -- that we're not satisfied with the status quo and are eager to do more.

MH: Any pet projects you're hoping to get accomplished soon?

JS: I keep joking that if I were smart and wanted to make lots of money I'd go into the whale training business. All these environmental and air emissions regulations and fuel directives keep coming out, and the price of fuel for the cruise industry is just going to keep going up. So rather than getting bashed about by the animal rights folks, you could probably make a good business if you could train whales to pull ships around.

MH: The economy these days is hitting everybody. I'm sure the whales could use the income.

JS: Exactly.

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