Between October and April every year, scores of gleaming cruise ships bound for Antarctica join the usual array of fishing boats, oil tankers, and freighters at the harbor in Ushuaia, Argentina.
Last month alone 22,000 cruise ship passengers and crew disembarked from ships like the Celebrity Infinity, the Golden Princess, and Peace Boat’s Ocean Dream. Most passengers filed past a placard that welcomed them to the end of the world, and onto Ushuaia’s main drag where shops sold tax-free North Face jackets, merino cardigans, and fin del mundo embroidered t-shirts.
The tourist industry constitutes around 10% of Argentina’s GDP and employs some 10% of its population. In Ushuaia, which is separated from the mainland by the Magellan Strait, it has an especially stabilizing effect on the economy.
But cruise ships – often described as ‘floating cities’ – also dispose of hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste and contribute to a growing garbage mountain on the outskirts of city.
Speaking through an interpreter, Vivian Remy, who works for Ushuaia’s municipal government said, “It’s a big issue because space is very limited in Ushuaia, and all of that cruise ship waste is adding to the waste produced by the city. Because of contamination regulations, nothing can be recovered from it; it is just waste.”
According to a 2008 article by Erica Koltenuk, the Southern Research Center has detected alarming levels of heavy metals, chlorides, phosphates, polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, and DDT in many of the Beagle Channel’s resident species, much of which can be attributed to runoff from overburdened landfills.
When Peace Boat docked in Ushuaia last Thursday, a group of around 30 passengers joined an eco-hike to the Martial Glacier to learn more about the environmental threats facing the city.
As their bus approached the Martial Mountain range, Vivian Remy told the group that until recently all of the city’s waste was dumped into landfills. But with the growth of the electronics industry, more cruise ship arrivals, and a population that boomed from 16,000 people in 1984 to around 60,000 today, garbage accumulation had become a serious problem.
In 2010, youth leader Ariel Itu set up Ushuaia Recicla (Ushuaia Recycles) to take pressure off the brimming landfills. Itu’s grassroots program, adopted by the municipality, introduced collection bins for glass, plastic and PET bottles, which are then transported to a recycling center in Buenos Aires; it also encouraged residents to be mindful of how they use everyday products. “The idea was twofold, to reduce the volume of glass bottles, but also to get people to stop throwing them away,” Remy said through an interpreter.
In 2014, Ushuaia Recicla donated 333 old tires, 3,000 aluminum cans, 5,000 plastic bottles, and 3,000 glass bottles to Earthship, a sustainable housing demonstration project the Peace Boat group would visit later on their tour.
On the ascent to the Martial Glacier, which caps the black peaks of the Martial Mountain range 1,050 meters above Ushuaia Harbor, the Peace Boat group hiked through sub-polar forest thick with southern beech and winter’s bark. Some passengers bounced on springy moss that carpeted a plateau leading up the glacier; others lapped meltwater that babbled down from it.
Vivian Remy said that around 90% of the vegetation in the foothills of the Martial Mountains is native to Patagonia, and the glacier above nourishes much of it. Through a process called basalt sliding, granular ice formed when snow repeatedly freezes and thaws moves across the mountain carrying minerals and oxygen to surrounding vegetation.
But the Martial Glacier faces an existential threat. On a plateau before the last ascent, Ushuaia Recicla founder Ariel Itu told the Peace Boat group that the scraggy rock they were walking on used to be covered by ice.
According to a 2000 study by scientists at CONICET, Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, the Martial Glacier had lost some 70 hectares of ice over the last 100 years, and has a present extension of only 23 hectares.
Seasonal variations make it difficult to say precisely how long the Martial Glacier has left, but a study on a nearby formation indicated a retreat of two to three meters per year, according to Itu. “Look at how much of the glacier has gone in the last fifty years,” he said pointing at the bald patches on the mountain. “You can imagine how long it’s going to take for this glacier to completely disappear.”
Although tiny by comparison with the climate-change threatened polar icecaps, the melting of the Martial Glacier would dry up the city’s main fresh water supply, starve forestry, and dent the lucrative tourist trade.
Through Ushuaia Recicla, Peace Boat’s previous southern hemisphere voyage contributed hundreds of aluminum cans collected onboard to the city’s nascent Nave Tierra, or Earthship – an off-grid housing project built from recycled material such as cans, glass bottles and used car tires. Passengers on this year’s southern voyage went to examine the completed build. “I love the idea of being able to live inside of our trash,” said Julie Pliner, a volunteer English teacher onboard Peace Boat.
Originally conceived by US architect Michael Reynolds, Ushuaia’s Earthship – which is more of a house than a ship – uses wind turbines and solar panels to generate power; the houses’ old tire wall insulation keeps the indoor temperature at 20-22˚C even through Ushuaia’s winter.
Clara Bisignani, a volunteer from Ushuaia’s Department of Culture, said that the municipal government had funded Reynolds’ build, the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere. “Compared to a standard house, the cost is roughly the same. What you spend in construction materials, you save in energy costs,” Bisignani said.
On a tour of the Earthship, the Peace Boat group twisted faucets for recycled drinking water derived from rain collected on the roof of the ship. Bisignani explained that the water is recycled four times, eventually feeding the flowers bobbing over the ship’s wine bottle-studded exterior walls. The building also contains and treats its own sewage on site so that nothing goes into the Beagle Channel.
One Peace Boat passenger, 36-year old architect Uehara Kei, noted how the harvesting of rainwater and the structure of the Earthship were reminiscent of old houses found in Okinawa and that these building principles were not in themselves, revolutionary.
For Ushuaia Recicla’s Ariel Itu, Earthship served a symbolic function. “Even though it might be difficult to implement the designs from Earthship everywhere, its existence is important. Young people are especially motivated by this project,” Itu said through an interpreter.
With a group of passengers splitting off from the ship to join an excursion to Antarctica, Peace Boat docked overnight in Ushuaia. That evening tour guides, ornithologists, Antarctic ship crews, and Peace Boat volunteers mingled with locals over Beagle Beer in the town’s Irish Bar, and the talk drifted to the sometimes-contradictory nature of sustainable tourism.
English teacher Julie Pliner said, “It feels strange to be on a sustainability tour that teaches everyone about how our behavior is leading to the disappearance of glaciers, and yet we are travelling around the world on a cruise ship, which are known for leaving quite a big environmental footprint.”
There is a direct relationship between cruise tourism and Ushuaia’s most urgent environmental challenges: garbage accumulation and glacial retreat. Waste streams generated by cruise ships are comparably large and consist of sewerage, grey-water, hazardous waste, sold waste, oily bilge water, and ballast water; some industry research suggests that an average cruise ship produces around three times the amount of CO2 per passenger as a flight of equivalent distance.
Having started with the original mission of peace and grassroots exchange, Peace Boat has evolved to focus much more on sustainability, implementing environmental education and awareness raising programmes onboard.
Peace Boat International Coordinator Anjeli Narandran said, “Increasingly aware of the environmental impact of cruise tourism, Peace Boat has taken steps to reduce its own footprint, minimizing waste generated onboard, recycling wherever possible and ensuring that all detergent used in its laundry is biodegradable. However, we want to go further and ensure that Peace Boat’s medium is consistent with its message.”
To this end, Peace Boat is now embarking upon a new project to create an Ecoship, a 10-mast cruise liner that, like Michael Reynolds’ Earthship, will not only preach sustainability but actually embody it.
The zero-discharge Ecoship is projected to consume significantly less fuel than other ships of similar tonnage and will also generate around 740Kw of power using solar panels. Cabins will be equipped with smart meters so that Peace Boat participants can monitor their own electricity and water usage patterns. “The cutting edge science of the Ecoship’s design make it greener than any other vessel out there”, said Narandran. “However, it is ultimately the “greening” of our behavior and consumption habits that will lead to true sustainability.”
The Ecoship, which will weigh over 50,000 tons and be capable of carrying 1500 passengers, is currently in the design stage and targeted for completion in 2019 – more information is planned to be announced later this year.