Can the Cruise Industry Clean Up Its Act?

FLOATING CITY Passengers on Allure of the Seas can ride a zip line over “Central Park” and sip a latte at the first ever shipborne Starbucks.

It’s dawn in early December, and I’m standing barefoot on a deserted beach that overlooks Falmouth, a colonial-era port, population 7,800, on Jamaica’s breezy northern coast, about 90 miles from the capital, Kingston. The air is deliciously cool and silky. Seabirds are pecking in the sand, scavenging for mole crabs at low tide. On the opposite side of the harbor, across shimmering blue water, there is a new $220 million port development for cruise ships. Royal Caribbean International and the Port Authority of Jamaica partnered to pay for its construction. Opened in March 2011, it was built to accommodate the largest passenger ships in the world, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas. Owned by Royal Caribbean and costing $1.4 billion apiece, they are sister ships -- identical twins -- five times the size of the Titanic, each carrying up to 6,300 passengers and 2,400 crew members.

When I first spot her, Allure is a pearly flyspeck on the horizon. But steaming toward Falmouth at 22 knots puts her on top of me in minutes. The ship, a skyscraper in repose, soars 213 feet above the waterline. Her port side, closest to shore, is near enough that I can make out sleepy-eyed passengers clutching coffee mugs on stateroom balconies. They’re snapping photos, too, with cameras flashing like glitter in the twilight.

Allure typifies an emerging breed of larger and more lavish mega-liners. It has two dozen restaurants, a shopping mall, four swimming pools (including one with a surfable wave), a 3-D movie theater, a casino, a sprawling fitness center and spa, a miniature nine-hole golf course, rock-climbing walls and zip lines, a comedy club, an ice-skating rink, volleyball and basketball courts, and nurseries for children, whose whereabouts can be pinpointed anywhere onboard with special "geotracking" bracelets. You can get your teeth whitened and your wrinkles Botoxed, and then catch a live symphony or a Broadway musical. Allure also boasts the world’s first "living park" at sea -- a 21,000-square-foot open-air botanical esplanade with more than 12,000 plants and trees.

To get a closer look at Allure, now docked, I stroll along Falmouth’s waterfront boardwalk. Her decks are brimming with passengers. There is a live spectacle under way on the stern. Theatrical music blares. Colored lights flash. And then acrobatic divers leap from elevated platforms through spouting fountains into a shallow oval pool. Although the music is loud, I can hear a guttural purr emanating from the ship’s engines. A dozen smokestacks clustered on the uppermost deck of this floating city are venting black plumes over the town.

Despite all the posh trappings, Allure is surprisingly planet-friendly, flush with the greenest gadgetry on the high seas. However, her engines still burn bunker oil, also known as bunker fuel, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Today, virtually every cruise ship is powered by this cheap, gelatinous sludge, which presents the single biggest hurdle to an industry that wants to call itself sustainable. As long as Allure guzzles this stuff, she will leave a colossal environmental footprint, regardless of all her shipboard innovations. International regulators recently adopted a tough new set of emissions standards aimed at slashing smokestack pollution from ships. But the industry, citing cost, is fighting these regulations, because they will likely force it to phase out bunker fuel. A fierce political battle is now under way.

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Jamie Sweeting, Royal Caribbean’s vice president of environmental stewardship, is a foot soldier in that war. But his alliances are conflicted. While he is committed to cleaning up Royal Caribbean’s fleet, he is also beholden to his employer, a public company that answers to shareholders who demand profitability. And Sweeting is not the one who will make the decisions about which fuels the company uses in the future.

Cruise industry executive is an unlikely role for Sweeting, who spent more than 13 years promoting ecotourism for Conservation International. "In 2007 Royal Caribbean approached me. They wanted to take sustainability to the next level," he says. "I wasn’t interested, but they were relentless. I took the job because I believed I could do more for conservation working within the industry than outside it." Some of his peers at Conservation International "thought I was Darth Vader, who had turned to the dark side," he says. (He isn’t the first green-credentialed exec on the cruise line’s roster. William Reilly, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency and chairman emeritus of the World Wildlife Fund, joined Royal Caribbean’s board in 1998.)

I meet Sweeting at Port Everglades, Allure’s home port, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to get a guided tour of the ship while she’s berthed between cruises. The amenities are sweeping and seductive, and after two hours onboard I admit to Sweeting that I’m reluctant to leave. In an interview with the Washington Post, Tor Olsen, captain of the sister ship, Oasis, said, "Our hope, of course, is that people don’t get off, because this ship itself is the destination." The late writer David Foster Wallace once described a cruise as a "hypnotic sensuous collage." That about sums it up.

Midway through our tour, Sweeting and I stop for coffee in "Central Park," Allure’s homage to the Manhattan landmark. Born in England, Sweeting, 40, has wavy blond hair and dark blue eyes. His looks are boyish -- those of a surf bum -- and his manner affable. He orders a cappuccino and then informs me that Allure is one of the greenest cruise ships ever built.

Raw sewage is perhaps his favorite topic -- and one that directs us below deck, amidships, to Allure’s $5.5 million wastewater treatment plant. Royal Caribbean, which earns $7.5 billion in annual revenues, is budgeting $150 million to install similar systems throughout its 40-ship fleet. The wastewater system, large enough to cover a tennis court, collects effluent, transfers it to bioreactors with fecal-eating bacteria, and then filters and disinfects it. The outflow is sparkling clean, odorless, and allegedly potable. "I’ve had engineers that will drink it!" Sweeting says.

Our next stop is a windowless, refrigerated hold where four crew members are plucking anything recyclable from heaps of garbage. "You are standing in the largest cold-storage trash facility at sea," Sweeting announces. Bottles, cans, plastic, and paper are parceled into bins and delivered to a shoreside recycling service. Used cooking oil is stored and later sent to a biofuel producer. Sweeting says, "Of the waste that goes ashore from Allure, about 95 percent avoids landfills. We are recycling, repurposing, reusing, or donating. There isn’t a hotel chain in the world that can claim to be doing a lot of the things we’re doing."

In the engine room, Sweeting gives me earplugs. It’s impossible to talk above the roar, so he shouts, mouthing muffled words inches from my head. He gestures toward Allure’s six engines, which use a new, more efficient type of fuel injection. On most ships, engines turn a driveshaft to spin a propeller. Allure is markedly different. Her engines produce electricity, acting essentially as fuel-powered generators. This electricity not only runs various onboard systems, from critical equipment to cafés and casinos, but also drives the ship’s three azimuth thrusters. (Azimuths are small, self-contained electric motors that can rotate 360 degrees, eliminating the need for a rudder.) When Allure is cruising, her propellers face forward, pulling rather than pushing the ship through the water, saving about 20 percent in fuel.

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