Q: My husband and I are planning a summer vacation and are considering a cruise for one huge reason: many offer activities to keep our boys, ages 8 and 10, preoccupied day and night. Neither my husband nor I have taken a cruise since the Kathie Lee-goes-Carnival era and I know a lot has changed over the years.


Aside from destinations, the “green factor” is something we’re taking into consideration. Have any insight into how to find and enjoy an eco-friendlier cruise?


A: I haven’t been on a cruise myself for a couple of decades (a singing and dancing Kathie Lee Gifford didn’t emerge from behind the midnight buffet on my voyage, sadly) but I do know that not barfing, successfully smuggling booze on board and, as you mention, keeping one’s brood happily entertained are three top priorities for many cruise-goers. I’m glad to hear you’re also thinking green.

To be frank, the term “green cruise” does register as being somewhat oxymoron-ish since cruising is widely regarded as being the least environmentally friendly, most carbon-intensive form of travel. (If you’re opting to cruise instead of fly to a destination for this reason, I’d reconsider.) After all, cruise ships truly are floating mini-cities capable of generating extraordinary amounts of pollution both at port and at sea. 

For example, a 2009 report published by Friends of the Earth titled Getting a Grip on Cruise Ship Pollution estimates that a ship such as Royal Caribbean’s 3,114-guest Explorer of the Seas — a boat complete with a rock-climbing wall and skating rink — is capable of producing 40,000 gallons of sewage, 4,000 gallons of bilge water, over 450,000 gallons of gray water and 19 tons of solid waste each day it is in operation. No, this isn’t the kind of stuff you want to ponder as you’re splayed out on the lido deck with your hubby, sipping your third white wine spritzer of the day while the kids are doing supervised arts and crafts projects somewhere in the bowels of the ship. But there’s light at the end of the smokestack …

MNN travel writer Josh Lew published an insightful green cruises 101 piece a couple of years back outlining what industry heavyweights are doing to clean up their notoriously unsustainable acts. I’d start by checking that out for the basics.

Next, I’d study Friends of the Earth’s Cruise Ship Environmental Report Card, a handy report that compares the environmental impact of 11 cruise lines and 113 cruise ships across three key categories: sewage treatment, air pollution reduction and water quality compliance. From looking at the 2010 report, it appears that many cruise lines have been proactive in dealing with sewage treatment while air pollution reduction continues to be an issue. The two highest scoring cruise lines in 2010 were Holland America Line and Norwegian Cruise Lines with final, somewhat lackluster grades of B minuses. And remember Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas that I mentioned? It scored a big fat F. Top scoring ships include the Oosterdam, Westerdam and Zuiderdam from the Holland America fleet, which all feature energy-efficient diesel electric power plants. The Coral Princess and Sun Princess from Princess Cruises are also high eco-achievers, both scoring A’s.

And here’s something to keep in mind: When it comes to cruise ships, big is certainly enticing — more onboard activities and amenities, more dining options, more ways to keep your kids preoccupied — but not always better. Case in point: Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, when launched in 2009, was the largest ship sailing the seas and was also touted as being quite green. On the 2010 Cruise Ship Environmental Report Card, it received a C minus. Not horrible compared to other ships but there’s certainly room for improvement. I’d consider family friendly cruises with capacities under the 1,000 mark.

Since you’re traveling with kids, you might be thinking of the “big D.” No, not that big D. I’m talking about Disney Cruise Line. Ranking as the most improved cruise line on the 2010 Cruise Ship Environmental Report Card and a finalist in Conde Nast Traveler’s World Saver Awards, Disney’s ships may be large, but there’s some pretty good green stuff going on aboard them. The line’s two signature sister ships, Disney Wonder and Disney Magic, have dedicated onboard environmental officers, while all Disney vessels have extensive recycling programs along with high water and energy conservation standards. Disney Cruise Line was also the first cruise line to utilize an innovative, nontoxic hull coating the boosts fuel efficiency. But the best part? The environmental education programs offered to pint-sized passengers that will keep them out of your hair and informed about various planet-saving issues. Sure, Snow White may be a poor replacement for Kathie Lee Gifford, but in terms of environmental efforts and green-themed distractions for your two boys, Disney Cruise Line might be your best bet.

Cruise safely this summer, and let me know which cruise line/ship you end up choosing.

-- Matt

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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