Long-Distance, Low-Impact? Inside Cargo Ship Travelling

Written by Moritz Bühner   // July 9, 2013    1 Comment

As I sail through the English Channel and complete my last miles around the world on a reefer vessel, accompanying 5000 tons of kiwifruit on their way from New Zealand to Europe, let me share some thoughts I’ve had during the past few weeks on the sustainability of this transport mode.

To start with, here are a few answers to the most common questions. Yes, today’s cargo ships employ engine technology that emits horrible amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulates. However, putting these emissions in perspective with each item transported, ships are more energy efficient than any other mode of freight transport on the planet.

Freighter travel, although much more comfortable than you would think, is not to be confused with a cruise ship holiday. Entertainment-wise, you have to be your own boss: that’s very different already. And you can access any place on the ship, anytime. But the biggest difference to cruises is in the respective emissions. On cruise ships, emissions range from 200 to well over 400 g CO2 per km per passenger. An enormous figure. Container ships cause an average of 15 g of carbon emissions per ton of cargo per km. Very low when compared to trains with 35g/tkm, trucks with 50g/tkm and air cargo with 540g/tkm (according to figures from the German association of shipping companies, “Verband deutscher Reeder”). People and freight cannot be compared directly, of course, but the figures illustrate how freighter and cruise travel are absolutely not in comparable leagues. Luckily, it is possible for any passenger who is willing to pay to choose a cargo ship over a cruise ship or over an airplane. One that comes with a much more authentic, unique experience and a low ecologic footprint that I’ll detail in the following paragraphs. Not all shipping companies take passengers, but for virtually any route in the world, you will find at least one company that does. See below for detailed information on prices and advice on how to book. So what’s the deal with the environmental effects of passengers on cargo ships?

Carbon-Neutral? Yes and No

Many travel agents promote freighter travel as a totally carbon-neutral mode of transport. In a way this is right. Especially when comparing it to flying, or using a car alone, it is surprising that the carbon emissions for each mile a person travels on a cargo ship are close to zero. Transport emissions for passengers are negligible, since the weight of one extra person in relation to thousands of tons of cargo is hardly calculable. Even when following an economic attribution of emissions, the “carbon-neutral” claim is correct. A cargo ship operates essentially to transport cargo. Given there is enough to transport, it would do the planned passage anyway, be there passengers or not because at the core of the shipping business is shipping cargo; passengers provide only a very little extra money. However, this transport-centered description fails to reveal the entire truth about the diverse environmental effects of your life on board. Because ships sail at low speed, you will spend much more time on the ship than on the plane you compare it to and consequently other factors that go beyond the transport itself have to be taken into consideration. Your lifestyle on board differs from the one on land and the ship’s environmental procedures do, too.

Heavy-Oil-Based Lighting + Electricity; Co-Generation for Sweet Water

Electricity generation, just like propulsion, comes from burning heavy oil in giant engines. Heavy oil is basically a leftover of the refineries on land that filter sulfur and other “un-clean” particles from crude oil when refining diesel, petrol, and other, lighter fractions. Heavy oil is too dirty to be burnt on land and cheap enough to power ships. In places where shipping routes meet, especially in big harbors and important channels, sulfur dioxide coming from the ship’s exhaust fumes causes acid rain. So why not use cleaner fuel? Well, when we make it cleaner, to refine the fuel we power our cars with, we have to make heavy oil. It is an inevitable by-product. There is no cleaner diesel, no cleaner petrol, without this by-product. Since we can’t pump it back into the ground, and nobody cares about air quality beyond the horizon, powering ships with heavy oil has become a tried and true means on all our oceans for dispersing the problem into the atmosphere, out of sight, out of mind. Occasional alternatives based on natural gas and hydrogen are technically feasible, but due to the incredibly cheap availability of heavy oil, these alternatives are nowhere near to posing an economically viable alternative. In a globalized trade world, where globalized customers call for lowest cost, globalized products, there is no room for cleaner, more expensive shipping.

What I want to limn out here, is that the whole ship and all of the energy used on board runs on heavy oil. Not only are the cargo and yourself being moved by the burning hydrocarbons, but they also power the reading lamp next to your bed, the TV, the kitchen equipment that refrigerates and makes your food, the laptop, your camera battery charger… Every electrical appliance used on board is powered with the heavy oil-run auxiliary engine. How much this fact worsens your personal impact depends on your comparable electricity demand on land. Plus, in most countries, the grid is dependent on coal to a dominating extent. This affects the climate in a similarly bad way as heavy oil, although it has to be said that most coal plants in Western countries have better end-of-pipe filters than most ships. But, if you, like me, decided to have an electricity provider that offers only renewable energy, you will have increased your carbon footprint when living on the ship, simply by using plugs and light switches. Oh, and, the pumps that deliver water to your cabin? They also run on “dirty” electricity. On the other hand, tap water on a ship is made by evaporating sea water. The necessary process heat for the steaming is taken from the waste heat flow of the engine. Here, the ship scores better: efficient combined heat and power for sweet water generation. The same goes for hot water.

Pro: No Consumption of Goods While On Board, Con: Unsustainable Food

Apart from transport and electricity, a big share of your lifestyle’s environmental impact depends on your consumption patterns. Apparently, life at sea offers an incredible amount of shipping, but not much shopping. Technically, this lack of opportunity to consume is an advantage of the ship because no shopping means no negative impact caused indirectly by buying harmful products. But this counts just as long as you don’t flip through duty free catalogs all the time and decide to buy a new gadget in the first harbor that crosses your way.

As we noted earlier, there is a mixed picture of sustainability on the freshwater-front. On the waste water side, the good news is that sewage is treated in three steps that first foster bacterial decay and later kill the bacteria according to “Germanischer Lloyd” specification. But still, at the end of the treatment, the flow of waste water goes directly into the sea. Along with organic waste and paper, which is legally thrown over board, this generates some considerable share of extra nutrients that further burden marine ecosystems.

Speaking of nutrition, in 99 out of 100 cases, the chef on the ship will seek to satisfy the requests from the hard-working crew and cook hearty, red meat-dominated dishes. Meat production has an enormous climate impact, it pollutes local water bodies, and under the usual circumstances is ethically doubtful. If you bother to read this article, you will probably be concerned with this, and you may, just like me, try to limit your meat consumption. Usually, I roughly follow the “weekday vegetarian” concept and only eat good meat on good occasions. However, on board, with three well-cooked, nice smelling dishes served every day, limiting your meat consumption can most adequately be described as torture

Separating plastics, metals, and hazardous materials from other wastes, at least officially, has become a common practice on ships and among the European and American shipping companies. Dozens of bins of all colors, suitable for all kinds of waste, can be found on many vessels. Whether and how well the crew has been trained to follow the recycling rules is, however, highly divergent. So deciding whether the waste you produced at sea ends up in the same place or not is out of your control. You can only hope the crew follows the company’s principles.

With shipping companies forced to cut costs at all corners, just like any other transport company, organically produced food is not a consideration. So, in comparison to my usual food consumption of mostly locally or regionally produced organic and vegetarian food, the impact of food consumption on board is much bigger and can never be compensated by the energy savings produced by cooking for a crew of 20 at once.

Biodiversity: Whale Collisions, Ballast Water

In terms of direct threats to wildlife, vessels don’t come up short of cars and buses. Whale collisions happen regularly; various people in our crew have experienced one in the past. Assuming you wouldn’t not use a bus because it hits a rabbit and ten frogs every 5000km, this is probably just the price you pay for employing machines. Biodiversity is a bigger issue. To combat invasive species, new marine regulations, to be implemented in the coming years, make ballast water treatment mandatory. Before ballast water is released back into the sea, it has to be treated either chemically or electronically to kill all possible life it contains. Up to this day, however, not many ships have been upgraded. But these issues, along with the ship’s noise emissions, are not related to your individual presence on board. Although important in the overall comparison of different freight transport modes, they are irrelevant to your personal footprint as passenger. Just like the ship’s carbon emissions, biodiversity threats have to be attributed to the cargo.

Make Up your Own Mind

With all these considerations on freighter travel sustainability stuffed into your head, just make up your own mind. It certainly beats flying. Personally, I am convinced that there is no sustainable way to travel fast. Moving from one place to another always uses energy, and moving thousands of kilometers in a few hours uses vast amounts of energy. But that’s not the only reason to dismiss flying and take it easy. A slow means of transport is always inspiring, and freighter travel is no exception. After a low-carbon world trip from Europe through many Middle Eastern, Asian and Oceanic countries, mostly overland and over sea, I found it very suitable to round up my experience by crossing oceans at a modest pace. A ship is not that slow, anyway! After all, it moves 24/7. Our Pacific crossing from New Zealand’s North Island to Panama took 16 days, the Atlantic from Panama to Belgium only twelve. Other carbon-neutral transport modes like cycling and hiking are far less comfortable. They are also limited to maintaining your bodily activities, which are naturally restricted by sleep. Even hitch-hiking, an unbeatable means of transport in the “necessary energy : possible travel distance”-ratio, requires a solid mental constitution and cannot be kept up forever.

All in all, despite the various advantages of freighter travel, you should still not let yourself be wooed into carelessness by claims such as the “carbon-neutral” one. No motorized transport is free of environmental burdens of all kinds. But in my humble opinion, freighter travel offers a reasonable compromise between caring for your personal footprint as responsibly as possible and still traveling long distances from time to time.

How to Get a Below Exuberant Price

There are travel agencies that specialize on this unusual form of changing location. Helpful search terms are “freighter travel” or “freighter cruise”. Booking through these agencies is convenient, but pricey. If you are lucky, and willing to inform yourself well through your own research, you might find a shipping company that takes you without needing an intermediate travel agent. This way, you are in a much better position to challenge the usual price of a soaring 90-110 Euro per day per person (all inclusive, apart from alcohol and vaccinations). Be aware that most shipping companies sail with spare cabins anyway, and the cost for one or two extra persons to dine with the 8 higher ranking crew, who have to be fed anyway, is relatively low. Most travel agents justify the high price with the costs for a mandatory deviation insurance, in case you get sick and the ship has to make a detour to drop you off, and port agent fees. However, these costs are not as high as often argued. Call your way through the shipping companies to get in touch with the person in charge of passenger travel. Try bargaining. And feel free to comment on your experience. Ahoy!

Article image CC BY 2.0 by cuxclipper. It shows the container vessel Maersk Saigon.


Tags:

carbon-neutral travel

ecologic footprint

environmental awareness

freighter travel

green living

low-carbon transport

sustainable transport


1 COMMENT

  1. By Moritz Bühner, January 21, 2016

    Just found a valuable diagram illustrating the on board energy use:

    From the 100% energy in fuel only 28.9% are used as propulsive thrust, some other 5.6% as on-board electricity, heat or service steam.

    Ship Energy Use Sankey Diagram, DNVGL
    http://www.sankey-diagrams.com

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Similar posts

20-20-20 Objectives

2012

3 scopes

3D printing

academia

ACHEMA

acidification

agriculture

air quality

aluminum

Ankara

antarctic ozone hole

apocalypse

assessment

atmospheric carbon measurement

B2B

Bachelor program

background database

BASF

battery change station

Bauwesen

best practice

bike sharing

bio capacity

bio-economy

biocapacity

biodiversity

biological gas treatment

biomass

blogs

BMBF

books

Brazil

BREEAM

building sector

building standards

business opportunity

carbon

carbon accouting

carbon assessment

carbon emissions

carbon footprint

carbon footprinting

carbon free city

carbon intensity

carbon leakage

carbon management

carbon neutral

carbon neutrality

carbon reduction

carbon relocation

carbon tax

carbon-neutral travel

cargo shipping

carton

central america

central asia

certification

CFC

change

chemical engineering

chemical industry

China

circular economy

circular flow economy

city

climate change

climate control

climate impact

climate neutral

climate protection

club of rome

CO2 balance

CO2 reduction

co2-equivalent

CO2-Fußabdruck

cogeneration

collaborative consumption

combined reporting

commercial sector

commons

comparative life cycle assessment

Competence Center

composite indicator

compost

composting

consistency

construction

construction industry

Consumer goods

consumption

container ship

cooperation along product life cycle

copenhagen

corporate carbon footprint

corporate culture

corporate material flow modeling

Corporate Social Responsibility

cost accounting

cost reduction

cost savings

cost-effective measures

Country Attractiveness

CPF

cradle to cradle

creative destruction

Creative Sustainability

Critique of the Green Economy

cross-collaboration

CSR

CSR report

customer-driven sustainability

cycling

dairy

Dashboard of Sustainability

database

Davos

de-growth economy

decarbonization

dematerialization

denmark

design

developing countries

developing world

development cooperation

Dienstleistungen

distributed manufacturing

divestment

domestic fuel consumption

domestic sector

double decoupling

e-car

e-mobility

e-sankey

e!Sankey

earth overshoot day

Earth Sciences

Earth summit

eCarUs

eco city

eco design

eco label

ecodesign

ecoinvent

Ecolabelling

ecologic footprint

ecological footprint

ecological resilience

ecological tax reform

economic indicators

ecosystem disturbance

ecovillage

education

efficiency

efficiency factory

efficiency investment

efficiency measures

efficient construction

Effizienzfabrik

EHS

eLCAr

electric car

emerging economies

emission gap

emission relocation

emissions

EMS

Energieeffizienz

energiewende

energy

energy contracting

energy efficiency

Energy Efficiency Directive

energy efficiency in production

energy efficient production

Energy Intensity by Sector

energy management

energy performance

energy reduction

energy sources

energy transition

engineering excellence

Enhipro

enms

environment

Environment Ministry

environmental accounting

environmental awareness

environmental balance

environmental capital

Environmental Contracting

environmental control

environmental cost accounting

Environmental Engineering

Environmental Goods and Services Sector

Environmental Governance

environmental impact

environmental impact data

environmental labeling

environmental LCA

environmental management

Environmental management accounting

environmental management system

environmental performance

environmental performance indicator

environmental policy

environmental product declaration

environmental product declarations

environmental profit and loss statement

environmental regulation

environmental standard

Environmental Sustainability Index

environmental technology verification

Environmentally Extend Input Output modelling

environmentally friendly raw materials

Environmentally Harmful Subsidy

Environmentally Weighed Material Consumption

EPD

EU

Europe

European Comission

european commission

European Green Cars Initiative

European Sustainable Development Strategy

eutrophication

EVALEAU

events

external effects

fashion

FIFA

fish

fishery

flow sheet simulation

food footprint

food industry

food loss

food production

food sector

food waste

footprinting

forest ecosystems

forestry

fouling

FPC

free trade

freighter travel

full cost accounting

gate-to-gate

gate-to-gate approach

geopolymer cement

Germany

Ghana

GHG emissions

GHG mitigation

GHG reduction

GHG reduction goals

glass

Global Compact

global justice

Global Supply Chains

global warming

global warming potential

GMO

governance

green building

green buildings

green business

green business models

green Christmas

green construction

green consumers

green economy

green growth

green investment

green jobs

green living

green new deal

green paradox

green production

greenhouse gas emissions

greenhouse gas inventory

greenhouse gas protocol

greenhouse gas reduction

greenhouse gases

greenwash

GRI

handprinting

Happy Life Years

harmonization

Harze

HDPE

heat integration

Herman Daly

HFC

holistic approach

holistic sustainability

human development index

HVAC

IEA

IFEU

ifu hamburg

ILCD Handbook

impact assessment

impact category

incentive

Incentive-based pay

incineration

India

industrial ecology

industrial location choice

industrial production

industrial sector

information design

innovation

input output

input-output databases

input-output economics

InReff

insulation

Integrated Reporting

integrated resource efficiency

integrative approach

intellectual property

internalization of externalities

international standards

interplant collaboration

IPCC

ISO

ISO 14000

ISO 14001

ISO 14008

ISO 14015

ISO 14025

ISO 14031

ISO 14040

ISO 14046

ISO 14051

ISO 14064

ISO 14067

ISO 50001

Jevon’s Paradox.

knowledge economy

Konsumgüter

Kooperation entlang des Produktlebenszyklus

Kuznets curve

Kyoto protocol

LCA

LCA data from suppliers

LCA database

LCA Databases

LCA inventory analysis

LCA recommendations

LCA software

LCM Berlin

lean manufacturing

Lebenszyklusperspektive

LEED

life cycle

life cycle analysis

life cycle assessment

life cycle engineering

life cycle inventory

life cycle management

life cycle perspective

life cycle thinking

life style

lifecycle

limits to growth

LinkedIn

living planet report

Long-Term Pay

low carbon economy

low-carbon transport

low-energy house

management models

manufacturing industry

masdar city

master program

material consumption

material efficiency

material flow

material flow accounting

Material Flow Accounts

material flow analysis

material flow balance

material flow cost accounting

material flow cost analysis

Material Flow Management

material flow modeling

material flow networks

material flowcosts

material flows

material footprint

material losses

materialeffizienz

meat

mechanical-biological treatment

media

metal industry

methodology

Mexico

MFA

MFCA

milk

modeling

Monetize external costs

Montreal Protocol

municipal solid waste

Natural Cost Accounting

nature conservation

Nepal

NIMBY

nitrate pollution

nuclear phase out

nutrients balance

nutrients cycle

OECD

OECD Environment Policy Committee

Ökobilanz

Ökobilanzdaten

Ökobilanzdaten vom Zulieferer

Ökobilanzdatenbanken

Ökobilanzierung

Ökolabelling

Ökologischer Fußabdruck

oligolopoly

Online Resource Efficiency Platform OREP

operational efficiency

optimization

organic agriculture

outsourcing

ozone layer recovery

packaging

PAS

passive house

patents

PET

philippines

phosphorus

photovoltaics

pilot program

pinch analysis

plastic industry

policy

policy instruments

politics

pollution haven hypothesis

post growth economy

post oil age

PR

process engineering

process heat

process improvement

process modeling

process modelling

Process Optimization

process system engineering

product carbon footprint

product environmental footprint

Product life time

product stewardship

production

production circle

production planning

production system

Production-based CO2 Productivity

productivity

Produktlebensdauer

protection proprietary data

PUMA

PVC

qatar

quality

quality journalism

quantified self

Rapid prototyping

rebound effect

recycling

refuse-derived fuel plant

remuneration

remuneration of environmental performance

renewable energy

renewable energy in manufacturing

renewable heat

renewable hydrogen

renewable methane

renewable process heat

renewable raw material

Renewable Resources

renewable thermal energy

resilience

resource conflicts

resource efficiency

Resource Efficiency Framework

resource flows

resource politics

resource productivity

resources

ressource efficiency analysis

ressourceneffizienz

retailer

reuse

RFID

Rio+20 summit

rising material demand

risk management

Rolf Dobelli

sankey diagram

saving potentials

savings

Schutz vertraulicher Daten

scope 3

seafood

season's greetings

seattle

services industry

shopping rage

smart grid

smart meter

SMB

social cost accounting

social LCA

social media

social metabolism

Social-Ecological Resilience

software

solar energy

solar heat

solar thermal energy

South Africa

South America

South Korea

soy milk

stakeholder management

standards

statistics

steady state economy

steel

stranded assets

strong sustainability

studies

sufficiency

supermarket chain

sustainability

sustainability consulting

sustainability control

sustainability indicators

sustainability innovation

sustainability management

sustainability performance

sustainability projects

sustainability reporting

Sustainability Science

sustainability strategy

sustainability triangle

sustainable agriculture

sustainable architecture

sustainable business

sustainable construction

sustainable development

sustainable housing

sustainable lifestyle

Sustainable Living

Sustainable Process Index

sustainable resins

Sustainable Resource Management

sustainable transport

sydney

system analysis

tajikistan

telecommunications

Telekommunikation

Tesco

textile industry

textile refinement

Tobias Viere

total material consumption

trade

transparency

transport

transport emissions

transport sector

Treibhauspotenzial

trends

triple bottom line principles

Turkey

Umberto

umberto for carbon footprint

umberto user workshop

Umweltbilanz

Umweltbundesamt

umweltfreundliche Rohmaterialien

university

upcycling

urban carbon emissions

VDMA

Vélib’

vernon curve

vertical cooperation

Vertragsnaturschutz

virtual water

waste air treatment

waste cycle

waste disposal

waste hierarchy

waste management

waste prevention

wastewater

wastewater treatment

water abstraction rate

Water Consumption by Sector

water extraction

water filter

water footprint

Water Management

water stress

web 2.0

Wellbeing Index

wind gas

wind power

wine

with both eyes open

working conditions

world cup

world statistics day

world vegan day

YET

zero carbon

zero carbon city

zero emission mobility

zero growth

zero growth economy