THE FINAL STRAW
I was standing at a bar on a recent cruise-ship sailing when a fellow passenger sashayed up and ordered a mai tai. It was properly made, shaken with ice, strained into an old-fashioned glass and topped with mint and a slice of lime. But where, the guest asked as if affronted, was her straw?
Several heads swivelled to stare at the unfortunate cocktail drinker as if she'd just wilfully chopped down a tree or choked a turtle. The bartender explained plastic straws were no more. The passenger tottered off into a corner, embarrassed, which was a pity. If someone had kindly explained that plastic straws are used only once, seldom recycled and take a century to decompose, she might have willingly embraced more eco-friendly habits.
You might say 2018 was the year open warfare was declared on plastic straws, while 2019 saw this symbol of unthinking environmental harm banished from much of the cruise world. We can sail into 2020 feeling better about something, at least. Norwegian (which also owns Oceania and Regent Seven Seas) now saves 50 million straws annually. Most other cruise companies have also banned plastic straws; dithering latecomers Carnival, Cunard and Holland America still provide them on request.
So, don't ask for a straw in your mai tai. Yet don't be overly impressed by the publicity that cruise lines have generated from their ban, either. Cruise companies – excuse the pun – grasp at straws in an effort to greenwash an industry notorious for its poor environmental practices. Large cruise lines are still regularly fined for blatant disregard of maritime eco-regulations.
As we head into the 2020s, though, I've realised that the plastic-straw ban is more than just a PR stunt. It has become emblematic of the cruise industry's growing (if sometimes reluctant) eco-awareness. The public has been putting pressure on cruise companies, which in turn puts pressure on each other to act. The results are clear. When the first ship from new cruise line Virgin Voyages is launched this April, it promises to have no single-use plastics on board.
In fact, most cruise companies have taken the plastic-straw movement as a starting point from which to ditch all unnecessary single-use plastics such as water bottles, takeaway cups and lids, packaged food items, condiment packets and shopping bags. You can expect these items to vanish from cruise ships over the course of this year and 2021, or to be replaced by alternatives made from other materials.
Business follows where consumers lead so, as passengers, we ought to take the eco-initiative too. It isn't amorphous cruise companies that uses plastic straws, but millions of their individual passengers. Ask yourself whether you could replace plastic bottles with a refillable flask, or a takeaway coffee cup with a mug. If you're still being offered tiny shampoo bottles in your cabin, then make a complaint. And surely you don't need a straw, even a bamboo one. Your mai tai will still go down a treat.
If you're concerned about sailing lightly on the planet, then choose a small-ship cruise company. Most small ships run on cleaner marine gas oil rather than heavy fuel oil. New ships are also more likely to be eco-sensitive, with more advanced waste-treatment and water-saving systems, and greater energy efficiency. You might also want to think beyond cruise companies to small adventure companies that offer cruises. For example, Peregrine Adventures has offered carbon-neutral cruises since 2016, and will now double carbon offset all of its Antarctica expeditions. Phone 1300 854 445; see peregrineadventures.com
Azamara has expanded its partnership with conservation organisation World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to offer a new collection of "People to Planet" voyages and excursions. The program launches in early 2021 with six conservation-themed voyages in South Africa that feature on-board WWF experts discussing topics such as sustainable agriculture, water resources, sustainability and wildlife. Shore excursions accompanied by WWF experts include endangered black rhino tracking and a sustainable farm visit. Each voyage and excursion will see Azamara donate to WWF's conservation work in South Africa, such as towards projects against illegal wildlife trade. Phone 1800 754 500; see azamara.com
HOLIDAY ON ICE
Looking to make an environmentally responsible visit to Patagonia? Then Australis Cruises was recently named Chile's most sustainable tourism company for its environmental protection both on the ship and on shore excursions. Australis supports long-term biodiversity monitoring of the sites its ships visit, including providing crucial transport for scientific operations and helping to educate travellers about scientific research and regional conservation. Australis operates two small ships on expedition-style itineraries between Ushuaia in Argentina and Punta Arenas in Chile through the spectacular fjord country of Tierra del Fuego, the Magellan Strait and Beagle Channel. See australis.com
LIKE A VIRGIN
The 2770-passenger Scarlet Lady launches this April and will sail short Caribbean itineraries out of Miami. It's the first of three ships in Richard Branson's new Virgin Voyages cruise company, which has promised no single-use plastic aboard its vessels, partnerships with sustainable suppliers and energy companies, and a focus on waste and water recycling. Virgin Voyages has joined with Virgin Australia on holiday packages for Australians. Flying to Miami for a short cruise is hardly the most eco-sensitive choice, but the airline does have a carbon-offset program. Phone 13 15 16; see virginvoyages.com