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.

Judge grills Carnival about plastic bottles

Image result for Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Carnival Corp. and its passengers used 50 million plastic beverage bottles last year, a figure that shows the magnitude of the challenge large cruise companies face in eliminating single-use plastics.

The number was disclosed for the first time by William Burke, Carnival’s chief maritime officer, who was being questioned by U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Seitz in a status conference discussion.

Activists fear that disposable plastics end up in the ocean, in large collections such as the 618,000-square-mile Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which includes 79,000 tons of discarded plastic.

The status conference was to brief Seitz on Carnival’s progress in implementing new environmental compliance programs required in its ongoing probation from a 2016 pollution case.

A figure for the number of plastic bottles Carnival consumes became an issue because Carnival did not provide the number to prosecutors in the case in its statistical disclosure about single-use plastics.

Instead, prosecutors said Carnival merely asserted that most plastic bottles are recycled, obviating the need to provide a count. 

Richard Udell, a senior litigation counsel with the environmental crimes section of the Justice Department, said the response was symptomatic of a corporate culture at Carnival that doesn’t take environmental compliance seriously.

“How do we know they’re recycled,” Udell said, “and not thrown back in the ocean or sent to a landfill?” He asserted that Carnival ships offload trash in many less developed countries with weak regulatory agencies. “We think that not knowing is not a solution here,” he said.

Burke said that Carnival’s confidence that the plastic is recycled stems from the fact that vendors pay to take it.

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

Carnival did provide prosecutors with an account of other types of single-use plastic consumed by its fleet in 2018. Company-wide, it purchased 67 million plastic straws, 37 million garbage bags, 18 million plastic yoghurt containers, 16 million plastic cups and 14 million individual amenity bottles.

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.

In July, Carnival said that it would “significantly eliminate its purchase and consumption of nonessential single-use plastics by the end of 2021.” The effort was part of a deal it reached with prosecutors to avoid being in violation of its probation.

MSC to Eliminate Single-Use Plastics

MSC Meraviglia

MSC Cruises today announced a commitment to eliminate single-use plastics from its entire fleet globally and introduce sustainable alternatives if available, the company said.

Under its Plastics Reduction Program, by the end of March 2019 MSC Cruises will effectively phase out an extensive number of plastic items from all its ship operations and ashore, and will replace them with environmentally-friendly solutions, the company said.

MSC has already taken action to replace by all plastic straws with 100 per cent compostable and biodegradable substitutes by the end of 2018.

Pierfrancesco Vago, MSC Cruises’ Executive Chairman, said: “At MSC Cruises, it is our mission to provide guests with the best holiday experiences at sea and we are fully committed to doing so in a sustainable way. For this reason, we are on an ongoing journey to reduce the environmental impact of our ships in operation. The imminent elimination of single-use plastic items from across our entire fleet globally is an additional step that we are taking in that direction. More importantly, under our global environmental stewardship program, it represents yet another step in our overall commitment to conserve and protect our planet’s most precious resource: the seas and the oceans.”

All MSC ships have been readied for this program and are equipped with state-of-the-art recycling facilities and efficient waste management systems, MSC said.

All crew are engaged in the MSC effort to separate and handle waste in accordance with regulatory MARPOL requirements and CLIA’s sound environmental principles to prevent marine pollution. Their efforts are closely monitored by a comprehensive and coherent system to manage and control all environmental aspects on board and ashore. A team of Environmental Officers across the fleet makes sure the company’s policies and vision is effectively implemented.

By March 2019, all single-use plastic shopping bags, spoons, glasses, stirrers, and other single-use plastic items for which substitution is available will be permanently phased out and replaced by environmentally-friendly alternatives. Packaging from single-portion items such as buttercups, jams or yoghurts will be removed and processes will be optimized to provide guest-friendly and convenient solutions.

Photo credit Dave Jones

MSC Cruises will be working with a range of international and local suppliers in areas where the ships are deployed and will be providing eco-friendly alternatives made of 100% biodegradable resins, consisting of renewable resources including corn- or sugar-based polylactic acid, bamboo, paper or other organic materials.

The company is also actively working with suppliers at all levels in the supply chain to effectively remove single-use plastics in products and packaging wherever possible, the company said.

Vago added: “At MSC Cruises we are now exploring working with a leading global certification company to assure any remaining plastic items, for which there currently are no viable substitutes yet, are effectively recycled. This will ensure end-to-end – no matter where our ships are deployed – that these remaining items from across all our ship operations not only do not have an impact on the sea but also on land for the benefit of the populations that we touch with our operations globally.”