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3 ways your ocean shipments are affecting the environment

Discover actionable steps to minimize your carbon footprint while transporting freight across the ocean. 

by Durga Pratiha | October 12, 2023 | 7 mins read

Discover actionable steps to minimize your carbon footprint while transporting freight across the ocean. 

As you look around the world today, you'll notice how connected everything has become. A big part of this connection involves ships carrying products across oceans – things like clothes, gadgets, and even food. But here's the catch: while these ocean shipments are important for getting things from one side of the planet to the other, they're not particularly good for the environment. When ships travel across the oceans, they release greenhouse gases into the air. These gases act like a warm blanket around Earth, making it hotter resulting in global warming. Ocean shipping, which accounts for approximately 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, sees the average cargo ship emitting about 2 grams of carbon dioxide per ton-mile. But that's not all – there's more to the story. 

The oceans, home to amazing creatures and underwater worlds, are taking a hit too. The ships can leak oil and other chemicals into the water, destroying the homes of fish and coral reefs. Now, the good news is that there are ways to make things better. 

In this blog post, we will talk about three major ways ocean shipments affect the environment negatively and what steps you can take to reduce your carbon footprint when moving freight across the ocean. 

1. Ships release harmful greenhouse gases resulting in global warming

Ocean shipping, while efficient for transporting large quantities of goods, relies heavily on fossil fuels. The burning of these fuels releases substantial amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change.  

Maritime supply chains account for approximately 940 million tons of CO2 annually, equivalent to at least 2.5% of the world’s total CO2 emissions. If steps aren’t taken to mitigate this damage, shipping emissions could increase by as much as 130% of the 2008 levels by 2050.  

Alongside carbon dioxide, ships release other harmful greenhouse gases like black carbon, nitrogen oxides, and nitrous oxide, making issues like global warming and air pollution worse. The emissions from ships can also cause breathing problems, heart diseases, and even cancer in people who are exposed to these pollutants. 

Here’s what you can do in your organization to lessen the negative impact of ocean freight: 

  • Choose sustainable carriers: Look for shipping companies that prioritize energy efficiency and have adopted cleaner technologies and practices. 
  • Opt for low-impact routes: Some routes are more fuel-efficient than others. Collaborate with your shipping partners to select routes that minimize fuel consumption and emissions. 
  • Consider slow steaming: Slowing down ships can significantly reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Planning for longer shipping times and allowing for slower speeds can help mitigate environmental impact.
 2. Vessel discharges can exert substantial negative influence on marine ecosystems

Although the number of accidental oil spills has gone down, they still happen from time to time. Research shows that big accidental oil spills make up around 10-15% of all the oil that goes into the ocean every year around the world. 

Vessel discharges can have a significant impact on the marine environment. These discharges can include:  

  • Ballast water: Often carries harmful organisms such as algae, bacteria, and viruses that disrupt marine ecosystems and harm native species.  
  • Sewage: Made up of human waste, food scraps, and cleaning chemicals, and can pollute coastal waters and harm marine life.  
  • Oil leaks: Whether due to normal operations or accidents, oil leaks lead to pollution that kills marine life, damages habitats, and contaminates beaches.

Here’s what you can do in your organization to lessen the negative impact of ocean freight:  

  • Ballast water treatment: Implementing technologies to treat ballast water is crucial in removing harmful organisms before discharge, preventing the spread of invasive species, and preserving marine ecosystems
  • Sewage treatment: Equipping ships with advanced sewage treatment systems helps remove pollutants from wastewater, safeguarding coastal waters and marine life from contamination. 
  • Oil spill response: Providing vessels with oil spill response equipment and training crew members is essential. This ensures a quick and effective response to oil leaks, minimizing the harm caused by oil pollution. 
3. Port congestion leads to significant environmental and social consequences

In the complex world of global trade, port congestion stands as a formidable challenge that impacts environments, economies, and supply chains. Port congestion occurs when there's an overwhelming backlog of ships waiting for their turn to dock, load, or unload cargo. This issue is far from isolated and has emerged as a challenge faced by ports across the world. The escalating volume of global trade is a chief culprit, straining ports’ capacity beyond their designed thresholds. This surge in activity often overwhelms infrastructure, leading to bottlenecks and operational inefficiencies. 

However, the consequences of port congestion extend beyond economic and logistical concerns; they significantly contribute to excess pollution, particularly in major cities where many of these ports are found. Here's how port congestion aggravates pollution in urban areas: 

  • Extended idle times and emissions: Prolonged waiting times in congested ports force ships to keep their engines running, spiking emissions of pollutants like CO2, NOx, and particulate matter, harming the environment and public health. 
  • Traffic congestion: Port congestion spills onto nearby roads, causing traffic jams for trucks and vehicles moving goods, leading to increased fuel consumption and pollutant emissions, worsening urban air quality. 
  • Dirty fuels and exhaust: Some ships use high-sulfur fuels when waiting in port queues, emitting harmful SO2 and particulate matter, polluting not just the port area but also nearby communities. 
  • Inefficient operations: Congestion disrupts efficient cargo movement, leading to outdated equipment and inefficient logistics, which are less eco-friendly and consume more energy, contributing to pollution. 

While your organization cannot directly invest in port infrastructure, you can still make strategic decisions that revolve around selecting ports with the desired qualities. Here's what you can do to mitigate the adverse effects of ocean freight: 

  • Infrastructure and efficiency enhancement: Modernize port facilities, expand capacity, develop efficient transportation networks, and implement advanced cargo handling systems for enhanced efficiency. 
  • Sustainability and collaboration: Promote sustainable practices, enforce environmental regulations, and encourage alternative transportation modes through industry collaboration and real-time data sharing. 
  • Operational adaptation and international cooperation: Extend port operating hours, implement congestion pricing, invest in automation, and collaborate internationally to address congestion and sustainability challenges. 
Navigating ocean shipments with responsibility and hope

In the grand tapestry of our interconnected world, the choices we make around ocean shipments resonate far beyond our horizon. As we've explored the profound ways in which our ocean shipments affect the environment, it becomes clear that every container loaded onto a ship carries not only goods, but also responsibilities.  

By embracing sustainable practices, investing in innovation, and fostering collaboration, we can navigate towards a future where our ocean shipments leave a smaller footprint on the environment. The solutions lie not just in the hands of shipping companies, but in the collective actions of governments, consumers, and all those involved in the intricate web of global trade. 

As we sail ahead, let us remember that the vastness of the ocean is a reminder of both its resilience and its vulnerability. With reliable steps to reduce our carbon footprint and nurture the health of our marine ecosystems, we can ensure that the legacy we leave behind is one of stewardship, sustainability, and the preservation of the magnificent oceans that sustain life on Earth.