Carnival’s environmental hurdles detailed in court documents

The world’s largest cruise company, Carnival Corp. faces a herculean task in eliminating single-use plastics from its ships, a mission that has taken on increased urgency in recent months.

The plastics challenge was underscored by the disclosure in federal court that Carnival brands last year bought some 239 million single-use plastic items, including some 50 million plastic beverage bottles.

Other purchases by Carnival include 67 million plastic straws, more than 39 million plastic bags, 16 million plastic cups and 11 million individual amenity bottles.

Those numbers were disclosed in a filing submitted as part of a court hearing on Carnival Corp.’s ongoing probation for a 2016 conviction of its Princess Cruises brand on environmental charges.

Prosecutors are concerned about the final destination of all of that plastic, a major focus of the government’s post-trial scrutiny.

They are also pressing Carnival to speed up what prosecutors say has been an unhurried approach to tackling plastic waste.

Throughout the cruise industry, companies are adopting new approaches to plastics because the stuff has the potential to wind up as indigestible food for marine life and nondegradable litter in the ocean.

Lines with smaller fleets and fewer brands than Carnival have been able to act quickly. For example, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic in July declared itself free of single-use plastics.

Carnival has set a target of a 50% reduction in single-use plastics on its ships by the end of 2021.

Plastics reduction is one of several initiatives the government added to Carnival’s responsibilities in an environmental-compliance program as part of a June settlement of charges that the cruise company had violated its probation conditions.

Carnival’s size and corporate structure make it hard to get an effort as big as plastics-removal going quickly. 

A monitor appointed to help the court, Washington lawyer Steven Solow, said in his first annual report that Carnival’s 10 brands function more like an association of companies than an integrated corporation. That was not a secret, of course. The brands have long celebrated their relative management independence.

Still, Carnival Corp. management, he said, could be bringing more to the table. 

“The company is not listening to what their own people are asking for,” Solow said.

Improving the corporate culture to make compliance with environmental laws a priority has been a major emphasis for Solow, a partner at the Baker Botts law firm in Houston who leads a team of lawyers with environmental and Department of Justice backgrounds.

Solow, whose job was created as a condition of Carnival’s probation, commissioned a study of the compliance culture at Carnival Corp. by Propel Sayfr AS, a Norwegian safety consulting firm with a speciality in “culture development.” 

The survey found Carnival’s compliance culture was “less mature” than 73% of other companies in the maritime and similar industries.

At a status conference on the case, Carnival Corp. chairman Micky Arison said the company was disappointed with the results of the survey. 

“Obviously, we have to improve,” he said. “We take the culture survey seriously.”

A Justice Department lawyer who prosecuted Princess for dumping oily water overboard in 2016 expressed some doubts.

“There are some signs we have a continuing problem,” said Richard Udell, a senior litigation counsel with the department’s environmental crimes section.

As an example, Udell said that Carnival ignored his request to tally the number of plastic bottles it uses each year. The company argued that since most of them are recycled anyway it didn’t matter. Udell said Carnival recycles some bottles in countries with “minimal infrastructure” and allows contractors to self-certify that the bottles were recycled.

“How do we know they’re recycled and not thrown back in the ocean or sent to a landfill?” Udell asked.

Vice Admiral William Burke, Carnival’s chief maritime officer, said at the status conference, “The reason I have a pretty good sense they’re getting recycled is that we’re getting paid for them.”

Udell said Carnival had not previously disclosed that and requested data about the prices Carnival receives.

Burke said he didn’t think beverage bottles were slipping through Carnival’s waste management machinery to end up in the ocean. 

“The stuff we’re having trouble with is the small stuff, the toothpicks and straws that are hard to find,” he said.

Carnival’s inability to sort plastic out of food waste before it was discharged overboard was one of the problems that led to a $20 million fine in June as part of its Probation Revocation Settlement Agreement.

Carnival is now two and a half years into its five-year probationary period, which is scheduled to end on April 2022. Some worry that it will reach that milestone without having put in place a sustainable compliance culture.

“Without the leadership saying this is imperative, that is the concern,” said Solow, whose team is paid by Carnival and whose budget for the first year of oversight is $6 million to $7 million, according to court filings.

U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Seitz said she had hoped that the 2016 probation oversight would have been much smoother at this point than it has proven to be.

“I feel like I keep pushing the rock up the hill, and it keeps rolling down on me,” Seitz said. “And we’re not going anyplace.”

She also expressed impatience at the continued problems with pollution but said Carnival has shown in the past it can improve its culture, particularly in the safety area.

“Looking at that, it gives me hope for this company,” Seitz said. “I believe it can be best in its class, but I keep seeing repeated incidents.”

Arison said Carnival had hired additional consultants.

“I think we’ve hired experts now that will, I hope, get to the bottom of things,” he said.