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Barrs says she first became interested in coastline refuse in January 1991, after she noticed syringes and blood-tainted vials washing in with the tide, along with what she describes as an "enormous amount" of cruise ship garbage. Barrs soon embarked upon an ongoing personal project to document the trash, scouring the mangrove-dotted stretch at the south end of the park at least once every week, collecting both labeled and unlabeled trash she believes is being illegally dumped into the waters off the coast. "I'm not trying to single out cruise ships," she explains, "but it would seem that's where a lot of this stuff comes from."
During the past year, Barrs has collected 97 items marked with cruise ship logos, as well as thousands of pieces of unmarked flotsam - everything from plastic food trays to cosmetic containers and perfume bottles to tampon applicators to globs of melted plastic she suspects come from ship incinerators. "And straws," she says. "Thousands and thousands of plastic straws." Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Kloster, Commodore, Premiere, Princess, Holland America - all these cruise lines are represented among the debris. The data, Barrs argues, indicate the source can't possibly be passengers or crew members tossing bits of trash over the side. "It's enough to convince me that if it's not a deliberate flaunting of the law, it is clearly negligence on the part of sloppy cruise ship employees who will not adhere to company policies against dumping."
Barrs has forwarded her findings, which she admits are not scientific, to the private, nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, D.C., which sponsors an annual international beach cleanup. "Her data does substantiate what we find in the beach cleanups," says Betsy Schrader of the group's pollution prevention program. (Last year's cleanup found 59 marked cruise ship items nationwide, 34 of which came from Miami-based Royal Caribbean.) Schrader, however, is quick to distance the group from Barrs. "We appreciate what she's doing, but it's completely unsolicited. She's doing this on her own."
And Barrs has also taken it upon herself to contact the cruise lines directly, asking them to join together to address the problem of offshore dumping. The responses, when they have come, have been cordial but cool. "Royal Caribbean has made strenuous efforts to help deal with the problem of maritime pollution," wrote Richard Fain, chairman and chief executive officer of the cruise line, in a July 8, 1991, letter, "and I was therefore greatly disturbed by the suggestion that we are responsible for any garbage dumping at sea. Rest assured that we go to great lengths to ensure that this does not occur."
The cruise line's vessels have onboard incinerators to dispose of waste plastic, Fain wrote; there are no companies available to recycle the products at the ports the ships visit. Many plastic items are cleaned and reused along with glass and other reusable products. And the company now fires any crew member caught improperly disposing of garbage, Fain wrote, even if it is a first offense. Kloster Cruise Limited, parent company of Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Viking Line, sent a response similar to Royal Caribbean's.
As a group, cruise line executives blame the dumping on employees disobeying company policy, careless passengers, even on garbage disposal companies that take the refuse off the cruise ships, perhaps dumping it in the water later on. "It's really easy to just say the cruise ships are big polluters," says Lloyd Axelrod, spokesman for Royal Caribbean. "But I think when you really look at the facts you'll see it's simply not true. There are a lot of things we are trying to do in educating our passengers and employees as far as protecting the environment." As for the trash disposal companies, they are monitored to ensure they are complying with the law. And while Axelrod points out that 34 Royal Caribbean items represents a nearly negligible percentage of the millions of pounds of garbage collected in the annual beach cleanup, he also acknowledges, "Just one piece of anything that shouldn't be in the water is too many."
One of the primary roadblocks to ending the problem, Barrs insists, is the lack of enforcement of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, which prohibits the dumping of plastic garbage at sea and sets minimum distances from shore for the disposal of nonplastic waste. Violators face up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine for each incident. But the Coast Guard must catch polluters red-handed, or at least possess compelling evidence of dumping, in order to press charges.
Coast Guard officials say they, too, are frustrated with their inability to prosecute. "Just the fact that the plastic is in the water does not prove the vessel discharged it," says Lt. Donna Kuebler, a Coast Guard marine environmental protection officer in Miami. "A lot of cruise ship companies are arguing that once they discharge the garbage to shoreside facilities, those people then turn around and toss it in the water. And some of garbage could be legitimately blowing overboard or could be tossed by passengers. There are times when passengers or crew members send videotapes where they have witnessed trash being discharged, and we can process violations in those instances. But anything short of an eyewitness with a signed statement is hard to prove." In the past year, the Coast Guard office in Miami handled nineteen plastic-dumping cases, which includes recreational boaters as well as cruise ships.
Barrs vows to keep up the pressure on the cruise lines and to raise awareness among the general public until no more junk from their ships washes ashore. "Do you know what this stuff does in environmentally sensitive areas?" she asks. "And the thing about it is, we have the ability to stop it. It's not that hard to just stop tossing this stuff overboard.