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The largest cruise company in the world is betting on a microscopic solution to fix its massive plastic pollution problem.

It’s already happening deep in the bowels of the Carnival Victory ship, where hundreds of pounds of food waste churns inside an enormous stainless-steel machine 24-7. The leftover food, scraped from the plates of cruisers, is mostly brown; at a closer glance, citrus peels and entire loaves of bread come into focus.

Once a week, a Carnival crew member opens the machine and pours a Zip-lock bag full of a flour-like powder — a mix of enzymes — atop the food waste mound. Those enzymes — a type of protein found in all living organisms — eat the food waste, leaving only a liquid byproduct that makes its way through a one millimeter mesh filter into a holding tank; it will be dumped into the ocean more than 12 miles from land. The leftover plastic can then be recycled back onshore.

The machine, called a bio-digester, is one of the ways Carnival Corp. is trying to clean up its act. While all cruise lines — and many other types of companies — struggle with plastic waste, Carnival’s offenses became a public embarrassment when a court-appointed monitor discovered the company dumped food waste mixed with plastic into Bahamian waters in December 2018. The cruise line was already on probation for environmental crimes at the time.

Facing public embarrassment in the courtroom and increased outrage over its share of the global marine plastic pollution problem, Carnival is attempting a sea change: replace nearly all single-use plastics on board and make sure no plastic ends up in the water. To accomplish this, the company is overhauling supply chains and shoring up waste streams with the bio-digester, all while trying to keep its plastic-accustomed passengers happy.

“We want to get all of our fleet to a position where they are no longer discharging food waste illegally into the ocean,” said Chris Donald, Carnival Corp.’s senior vice president of corporate environmental compliance. “That’s our aspiration.”

More plastic than fish

Plastic is produced with petrochemicals made from crude oil and natural gas. It’s harmful because it takes centuries to decompose — far longer than most other kinds of garbage.

It’s even more dangerous when it enters the ocean, where it’s extremely difficult to recover and can kill marine life in a variety of ways, from entangling sea turtles to smothering corals. As wave action and sun exposure breaks down plastic into micro-plastics — tiny pieces less than five millimeters long — it also makes its way into the marine food chain, as fish after fish eats it or filters it in its gills. In the worst cases, aquatic birds and other sea life that consume too much of it can starve, their stomachs eventually filling with indigestible plastic.

Scientists estimate that more than five trillion pieces of plastic weighing eight million tons are floating in the ocean — equivalent to five plastic bags’ worth of waste on every foot of shoreline around the world.

Plastic waste floats in huge blobs amid ocean currents called gyres, together covering as much as 40 percent of the ocean surface. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of five large accumulation zones and stretches from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The United Nations this year said plastic pollution has reached “epidemic proportions.” By the year 2050, there will be more plastic in our ocean than fish, scientists say.

In addition to the physical effects of plastic in the ocean it also creates chemical threats. Plastic is made from petrochemicals, which can break down into pollutants when they interact with sea water and sunlight.

Pieces of plastic also serve as surfaces to which other chemicals can adhere, allowing for contaminants and additives to float around and travel deeper in the ocean, said Mark Bond, a marine biologist at Florida International University. Plastic products like grocery bags have made their way to the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean.

“It’s a pervasive problem; we have decades of growing single-use plastic consumption but disposal techniques are inappropriate,” said Bond, who also leads an FIU-led initiative to engage citizen scientists to combat plastic pollution.

The cruise industry’s handling, and often mishandling, of plastics is the focus of the ongoing federal criminal case in Miami against Carnival Corp. — a suit that is giving the public a rare look into the company’s inner workings. In June, Carnival Corp. CEO Arnold Donald pleaded guilty on behalf of the company to six probation violations and paid a $20 million fine. As part of the plea agreement, Carnival Corp. agreed to reduce its use of single-use plastics by 50 percent by Dec. 31, 2021, and commit $20 million to improve food waste management on its ships.

The suit has put Carnival in the hot seat, but the problems associated with plastic use stretch across the industry. For decades, cruise ships have carried hundreds of millions of plastic products as they float through the ocean every year. Passengers got unlimited plastic water bottles, utensils, coffee cups, lids and stirrers, straws, condiment packets and yogurt containers, Q-tips, and bags for purchases of plastic souvenirs — until now.

One ship, one mountain of plastic

All those small pieces add up to mountains of plastic trash. In just one three-month period in 2019, for example, the court-appointed monitor overseeing Carnival on probation found that the Carnival Breeze cruise ship offloaded 452 cubic meters of plastic to be recycled, or enough to fill more than six 40-feet long shipping containers.

By the end of this year, Carnival Corp. chief maritime officer Bill Burke said the company’s 103-ship fleet across its nine cruise lines will not carry any of the eight million plastic stir sticks, 67 million straws, or 16 million cups it purchased in 2018. The company has either stopped using these products or found alternatives like cocktail stirrers made from noodles and straws made from sugar. Next year, Burke said the company plans to tackle the 800,000 chop sticks and 18 million yogurt containers it purchased in 2018, among other products.

“The first tier is the small stuff that causes the most concern because it’s easily hidden in food waste,” Burke said. “We are trying to use up the inventory to reduce the amount of these items. Eventually [passengers] won’t have the option to have them anymore.”

If any plastic makes its way into food waste, the bio-digester is meant to keep it from the ocean. Under the company’s old system, a pulp machine chopped food waste into tiny pieces and put it into a tank where crew members fished out floating plastic before it was dumped overboard.

Now, crew members aboard the Carnival Victory lug red trash bins full of food waste into the kitchen elevator and all the way down to Deck 0 to the recycling room, home to the bio-digester (one of 20 the company is testing) and cardboard compactors. The crew scoop food waste from the red bins into the machine every half hour.

The bio-digester prefers a balanced diet, similar to a human stomach, and can consume hundreds of pounds of food each day. In two hours, a croissant disappears; in a few days, a corn husk. One pound of food waste produces about 34 ounces of liquid that gets dumped overboard more than 12 miles from land, which is allowed under international law.

“The beauty of the digester is that it’s only going to eat organic food,” Donald, the corporate compliance manager, said. “The enzymes, which are very similar to the way your stomach works, are eating the foods, but they will not eat metals, they will not eat plastics, they’re only going to eat the food. So, if we do inadvertently end up with some plastics in food waste it will remain inside the digester and we can pull it out at the end of the day when the machine is going through its cleaning cycle.”

Over the next two years, Carnival Corp. plans to install between seven and 15 machines on its ships at a cost of around $32,000 each on average, Donald said. Carnival Corp. is the first of the major cruise companies to install bio-digesters on this scale.

Federal prosecutors in Miami remain skeptical that Carnival’s strategy will bring about the sea change it seeks. The company received repeated warnings about plastic pollution in its food waste from employees and the court prior to the illegal plastic dump in December 2018.

“The statements that have been made sound good, are compelling,” said Richard Udell, one of the prosecutors at a recent hearing to review the strategy. “The proof is in the pudding.”

Big challenge: Bottles

The plastic waste problem isn’t limited to Carnival. Cruise giants Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Ltd., are also trying to improve.

Carnival Corp.’s closest competitor, Royal Caribbean, began limiting plastics in 2017 by only offering straws on request to passengers. By the end of 2018, the company said it replaced 70 million straws, stirrers and food picks it used the previous year with non-plastic alternatives.

By the end of 2019, Royal Caribbean said it will have replaced more than 65 million plastic utensils with compostable plastic and containers for condiments, creams and spreads with paper and reusable alternatives.

Of all the plastics at sea, water bottles are the most difficult plastic item to replace, Carnival Crop. and Royal Caribbean said. The cruise companies have established supply chains, including years-long contracts with plastic vendors and plastic recyclers, said Eddie Segev, vice president of environmental stewardship for Royal Caribbean. They say these contracts make instant change impossible.

“I would love to say let’s just switch these water bottles to something else, but I have to make sure that the alternative doesn’t compromise anything in the cycle,” Segev said. According to Segev, there is currently no alternative to plastic bottles on the market that would work for all of the company’s 41 ships.

So far, just two Royal Caribbean ships are plastic bottle-free. The company’s newest ship, Celebrity Edge, launched in December 2018 with aluminum water bottles. Celebrity Flora, which launched this past June, has water filling stations. Segev said the company is testing different options on other ships, but hasn’t found a fleet-wide alternative yet.

Carnival Corp.’s luxury Seabourn cruise line is aiming to replace all plastic water bottles with reusable glass bottles filled with filtered water on its six ships by the end of this year.

The third-largest cruise company in the world, Norwegian Cruise Line, seems to have managed to do what competitors have not: by January 1, 2020, the company said it will have replaced all plastic water bottles with a paper carton alternative. The achievement is the result of a year-and-a-half long initiative that began with a meeting on Earth Day in April 2018 in which the executive team reviewed each disposable item used on board its ships. The company first eliminated plastic straws on its ships in 2018.

“It was a watershed moment,” said Harry Sommer, who will be taking over as CEO of the cruise company with 17 ships in January. Norwegian settled on the water cartons made by JUST Goods Inc., a company founded by Jaden Smith with the help of his parents, actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. The cartons have a top made from sugarcane that is recyclable, but not biodegradable.

Virgin’s green bet

The newest player in the South Florida cruise industry, Virgin Voyages, started with a clean slate: no preexisting plastic supply chains. When the company’s first ship launches next year, it will be without passenger-facing single-use plastics.

Jill Stoneberg, the company’s director of sustainability, said she and her team examined each disposable item passengers typically used and whittled the list down from 46 to 16 essential items.

“We’ve thought through all of the commonly disposable items that you would find on a ship, looked at each one, and said, “Is this something we can live without?” said Stoneberg. “If not, is there a more environmentally responsible item we have sourced?”

Instead of plastic water bottles, passengers will have reusable bottles. Instead of plastic bags, passengers will have reusable totes. Condiments will be served in reusable dispensers.

Still, despite these efforts, plastic-free cruising remains out of reach for the industry. Many back-of-house items lack non-plastic alternatives, Stoneberg said, like cling wrap for pallets.

“There are some things we looked high and low and haven’t been able to find an alternative,” she said.