Health and safety habits vs sustainability on board

What solutions lie ahead for single use plastics and sustainability on board? 

Health and safety habits sometimes obstruct efforts to reduce single-use plastics or other recycling initiatives on ships at sea. Those on board have often had health concerns around the safety of drinking communal water, rather than bottled water. 

This public perception may be no surprise considering there have been some major recent events where health and safety have been compromised at sea. In 2019, the Royal Caribbean passengers faced norovirus due to contamination within the ship’s water system. On the Celebrity Equinox in 2015, 142 passengers and 8 crew were quarantined with norovirus, after the ship’s water system was similarly contaminated. In 2013, the Carnival Triumph was stranded for days at sea, when a fire in the engine room from a fuel leak caused water contamination, leading to passengers drinking and showering in brown water.

Although accidents can occur, a supply of water is important for long voyages. Cruise ships and some yachts often produce drinking water from seawater or have large tanks for storing freshwater between ports. When water treatment systems are well maintained and regularly tested, they can be a safe, economic, reliable source of water, reducing a reliance on single use plastics.

Plastic bottles on board

Passengers and crew members often prefer bottled water, and have misgivings over treated water due to the taste of chlorine and general contamination concerns. Stephanie Lavelle, Project Director at Sea Sanctuaries Trust, explains “This is a particular challenge in US waters, where the chlorine requirements for safe drinking water are particularly high. A balance needs to be found between water safety regulations and trust in the quality of drinking water onboard.” 

The positive side to having bottled water on board is that used bottles can be recycled. However, as explained in a previous Marine Professional article featuring Stephanie Lavelle, the obstacle lies in having the bottles reach the appropriate recycling facilities. Older vessels often find it difficult to separate waste, due to systems already established, or in some cases due to space limitations. There can be a huge reliance on the facilities made available at ports, which may largely vary from port to port, and where there may also be no systems for separating waste or a lack of clear instructions for recycling. 

Can there be a compromise?

Perhaps there is a balance to be struck to account for the general preference for bottled water on board, and the huge reliance vessels have on port facilities. Stephanie offers one possible workaround. “A transitionary option could be to adopt automated water refill stations to reduce the number of single use plastic bottles, but this would be dependent on a vessel’s route and ability to refill water shore side.” 

The IMarEST’s Ocean Plastics and Marine Litter Special Interest Group (SIG) explores ways that single-use plastics can be cut out. After all, these plastics are called single use as they are not designed to be recycled. Often, they are made of fossil fuel-based chemicals, and they may be some packaging, bottles, straws, shopping bags etc. The SIG welcomes collaborations with other groups to improve recycling efforts in the marine industry.

To become a member of the Ocean Plastics and Marine Litter SIG, log into My IMarEST, click on My Special Interest Groups and then tick the boxes of the SIGs you'd like to join. You can then also join the group on Nexus, our networking platform.

Clarissa Wright

Clarissa Wright is a freelance science journalist and Editor of NatureVolve