SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Miles from shore in the open Caribbean Sea, cruise ships are dumping ground-up glass, rags and cardboard packaging. But vessels in other waters, such as the Baltic and North seas, are prohibited from throwing solid waste -- other than food scraps -- overboard.
The difference is that many countries with coastlines on the world's most fragile seas abide by a United Nations dumping ban that requires them to treat ship-generated garbage on land. Caribbean islands have yet to adopt the ban, saying they simply don't have the capacity to treat ship garbage on shore. They also fear that the ban could push ships to dock in less-regulated ports of call.
"We don't have space to take nothing from nobody," said Travis Johnson, assistant harbor master on Saba, a Dutch island of 1,500 people that is building a new pier to accommodate larger cruise ships.
The U.N.'s International Maritime Organization outlawed dumping in 1993 for the Caribbean, a largely enclosed area where the string of islands blocks currents that would flush waste into the Atlantic Ocean. The law will not take effect, however, until enough of the surrounding nations report their capacity for treating trash from cruise ships -- information that the vast majority of nations have so far withheld.
The U.N. created the ban to protect areas that are vulnerable because of heavy ship traffic or sensitive ecology. It has already taken effect in the Antarctic, the Baltic, the North Sea and the Persian Gulf, and is set to take effect in the Mediterranean in May.
Environmentalists say debris dumped in the ocean can entangle sea creatures, damage water quality and alter ecosystems by providing habitats for opportunistic organisms.
Ignoring the ban also has its consequences for tourism. Some trash dumped in the ocean washes ashore with the winds and currents, fouling beaches. In the Cayman Islands, the government has traced milk cartons on shore to a passing cruise ship.
"If you just dump this out at sea, eventually it gets back up on land," said Jeff Ramos, a Curacao-based U.S. Coast Guard officer.
In the Mediterranean, environmental officials say, coastal nations are highly aware of marine litter and did not resist the ban.
"The issue of garbage from ships is very well documented, at least in our region," said Lilia Khodjet El Khil, a Malta-based officer with the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Center for the Mediterranean.
Under the current Caribbean regulations, ships can begin dumping garbage, including metal, glass and paper, three miles from shore as long as it is ground to less than an inch. Almost anything but plastic can be dumped beyond 25 miles.
The ban, if approved, would outlaw discharging any solid waste at any distance except for food, which could still be dumped three miles from shore.
The islands scattered across the Caribbean have struggled to establish a common policy because when it comes to the cruise industry, they see themselves as competitors. Cruise ship arrivals are major economic events, with passengers spending roughly $1.5 billion annually in the Caribbean's ports. Governments are wary of driving away ships that might find fewer requirements or lower fees elsewhere.
In one notorious example, Carnival Cruise Lines withdrew from Grenada in 1999 amid a dispute over a $1.50-a-head tax to pay for a new landfill.
"Countries haven't forgotten that," said Christopher Corbin, a Jamaica-based officer with the United Nations Environment Program. "They are worried that they will get played off against each other."
A trade group that speaks for the cruise industry would not give its position on the ban when asked, other than to say it abides by all current regulations and already is taking steps on its own to eliminate overboard dumping.
Most ships under the umbrella of the Cruise Lines International Assn. have stopped discharging solid waste in the Caribbean, according to a statement from the Florida-based group. It said some cruise liners, equipped with on-board incinerators, compactors and recycling programs, now generate less non-recycled waste than resorts on land.
Small, developing countries have not been able to impose the ban also because of divisions over who should pay to treat the waste, said Chastanet, the tourism minister for St. Lucia, which has taken steps on its own to build waste treatment plants.
The U.N. and the U.S. Coast Guard have held seminars in the last couple of years to push for a regional approach in the wider Caribbean, which includes the Gulf of Mexico.
But advocates of a ban acknowledge it's a tough sell.
"There is a very strong feeling about taking other people's garbage, what's considered developed countries' garbage," Corbin said. "There's a stigma associated with trash."