What happens to all that uneaten food on cruises? These lines are working to reduce waste.

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While I watched a crew member aboard Holland America Line’s Rotterdam ship haul away my half-eaten order of french fries, I felt a pang of yearning.

I spent nearly two weeks sailing with the line in October, and made a point to sample nearly every restaurant on board, including the burger joint Dive-In, but never requested a to-go box at the end of a meal like I might on land. With only a minibar in my stateroom and food always at my beck-and-call, it seemed impractical.

Little did I know that elsewhere on board, a machine would likely soon be chomping on my leftovers.

Holland America Line has installed biodigesters that can break down organic material as part of efforts to shrink its food waste footprint, and parent company Carnival Corporation now has more than 600 of the devices throughout its fleet.

For many travelers, food is a key part of the cruise experience with seemingly unlimited options - think buffets - included in the fare. But for all the cuisine passengers enjoy, there is plenty that doesn’t get eaten, and many lines are working to refine their processes for dealing with that waste.

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What happens to food waste on cruise ships?

Carnival Corp., which operates brands including Holland America, Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and others, generates 1.3 pounds of food waste per person each day on average, but can generate as little as 0.6 pounds per person per day, depending on the line, a spokesperson for the company said in an email.

All of that waste is either processed via biodigesters or dehydrators, or offloaded on shore.

Some of the company’s ships have long had dehydrators, which squeeze the water from food waste and lighten the load that can be taken to landfills, compost sites or waste-to-energy facilities. “And that was good, but not necessarily good enough,” said Bill Burke, the company’s chief maritime officer.

The company began a “three-pronged approach” to food waste in 2019, he said, from the point when the lines stock food to after guests throw away what they don’t eat.

Carnival Corp. analyzed the waste, and worked to determine what was leftover, what they could reuse in other recipes and where they could cut back. “That’s a significant carbon issue if we’re buying food that we’re not using,” Burke said.

The company has reduced food waste by over 30% per person as compared with its 2019 baseline, according to its 2022 sustainability report, and has set new goals of 40% by 2025 and 50% by 2030.

Burke said Carnival Corp., which operates the largest number of U.S. sailings, has also worked to reduce single-use plastics, swapping individual yogurt cups for bulk containers, for instance. The biodigesters, which he called the “holy grail,” have rounded out that work, digesting much of the organic waste that would have previously been ground up and discharged, turning what’s left into a liquid.

Other companies and cruise lines are working toward similar aims.

Royal Caribbean International uses proprietary technology to track how much food is being wasted - by weighing pans of lasagna before and after they are served for instance - and amend production accordingly. The cruise line has also expanded those efforts, including using point-of-sale data to forecast how much food they will use based on passenger demographics, the itinerary and other information.

“(If) we have 10% more kids, we know we’re going to need significantly more chicken fingers,” said Linken D’Souza, the line’s vice president of food and beverage.

Leveraging that intel will allow them to be proactive, D’Souza said, and eliminate waste before it happens.

Some initiatives have been particularly creative. Norwegian Cruise Line launched zero-waste drinks at a bar on its Prima ship last year, reusing items like banana peels and croissants in cocktails.

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