We all know that planes, trains, and automobiles use gobs of fuel and spew mega-gobs of greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere — and that makes freight transport a particularly dirty business.

Your new iPod is in there somewhere.

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The environmental impacts of shipping goods hither and yon are significant but relatively obscure, the true costs hidden amid complex shipping tariffs and product price tags. Businesses that rely on products being moved from one place to another have been able to do little to change the performance of truck, rail, and marine cargo companies. Moreover, cargo companies haven’t been on most environmental activists’ radar screens.

But that’s changing. The growing focus on climate and energy — along with such evergreen issues as biodiversity and air and water pollution — have brought shipping’s environmental impacts into the fast lane. Activists are starting to wage campaigns against dirty shippers. And a handful of companies, including some of the world’s largest freight haulers, are beginning to take action.

Ships Happen

The environmental cost of moving goods can be significant. Take cargo ships, for example — the means by which two-thirds of the goods purchased by U.S. consumers arrive on American shores. While oceangoing vessels worldwide account for just 2 to 3 percent of global fossil-fuel consumption, they are responsible for 14 percent of the nitrogen emissions from fossil fuels and 16 percent of all sulfur emissions from petroleum, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University.

One reason: cargo ships run on “bunker fuel,” the dirtiest, cheapest product that remains after gas and other high-grade fuels are refined from crude oil. Bunker fuel contains up to 5,000 times more sulfur than diesel. As a result, according to Bluewater Network, a division of Friends of the Earth, a single container ship emits more pollution than 2,000 diesel trucks.

Ballast is another issue. Modern cargo ships hold within their hulls millions of gallons of water, which is moved around to ensure the ship is properly trimmed, improving safety and speed. Ships routinely exchange ballast water while in port as cargo is loaded or unloaded. The water pumped out of the ship is alive with organisms from ports previously visited. One analysis of ballast water from foreign ships entering Canada found as many as 12,392 marine creatures per cubic meter. The survivors often invade their adopted homes, sometimes wreaking havoc; the zebra mussel fouling the Great Lakes is just one example.

Of course, ground and air freight have impacts, too. Truck and rail represent about 17 percent of all transport-related climate emissions. Over the past four decades, freight-truck vehicle-miles have increased more than 50 percent, while fuel efficiency has grown only about 12 percent. Overall, the 35 billion gallons of diesel fuel used by truck and rail companies each year produce more than 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, aircraft transport boasts greater fuel consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions per ton-mile than any other mode of transport. And their emissions’ negative impacts are amplified due to the high altitude where they occur.

All of which is getting activists moving. In recent years, for example, Bluewater Network successfully sued the U.S. EPA over regulation of emissions from large, oceangoing vessels. In April, a delegation of environmental and public-health organizations from the E.U. and the U.S. pressed the International Maritime Organization to reduce ship smokestack emissions by 70 to 90 percent, saying the cuts would protect those who live and work near ports from cancer, respiratory ailments, and premature deaths.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has also weighed in, issuing a report that points out that although trucks account for just under 6 percent of highway miles driven in the U.S., they account for a tenth of all domestic oil consumption. They’re also responsible for a quarter of smog-causing pollution and the majority of the cancer threat posed by air pollution in some urban areas. According to the EPA, idling trucks and locomotives use 1.2 billion gallons of diesel fuel a year and emit more than 200,000 tons of nitrogen oxides. Talk about idle indulgences.

Freight Expectations

What’s going on to reduce such impacts? A boatload. A couple of years ago, the nonprofit Business for Social Responsibility convened a Clean Cargo Working Group to help retailers and manufacturers reduce the impacts of oceangoing transport. They developed a set of standards for measuring the climate impacts of shipping, along with a questionnaire to give ship operators.

This wasn’t easy. Calculating the climate impact of, say, a pair of shoes being shipped from China involves understanding the type of ship, the kind of fuel it burns, the shipping lane it traveled, and other factors. Companies like Chiquita, Hewlett-Packard, Mattel, and Nike have been involved with the effort to work with vessel operators including K Line, Maersk Sealand, and NYK Line to implement the new standards.

Meanwhile, back on dry land, trucking companies — driven by such mega-shippers as Dell, Home Depot, IKEA, J.C. Penney, and Lowe’s — are gearing up a new generation of vehicles that significantly improve fuel economy and reduce emissions. FedEx has been working with Environmental Defense to produce a low-emission, hybrid-electric delivery vehicle that could become a medium-duty truck for the company’s fleet. Wal-Mart, with one of the world’s largest fleets, has pledged to increase its trucks’ efficiency by 25 percent over the next three years and double it (from 6.5 to 13 miles per gallon) within a decade. Efficiency comes from improving engines, of course, but also from such steps as installing “side skirts” on trailers to reduce wind resistance.

What can you do to reduce shipping’s impact? Four things:

  • Avoid air freight whenever possible. Aside from being expensive, it consumes far more fuel per mile traveled. Patagonia calculated that the energy costs associated with a product rose from 6 to 28 percent when the mode of transport shifted from ground to air.
  • Consolidate shipments. This reduces overall packaging and fuel use, and can lead to lower shipping costs.
  • Press shippers on their environmental practices. Encourage them to use hybrid vehicles, idle-reduction devices, and other cleaner technologies.
  • Buy local whenever possible to reduce the need for shipping altogether.

In the end, keep in mind that the environmental impacts of the products you buy may pale compared to the impacts of shipping them across oceans and continents.

Getting there, as they say, is half the fumes.

Package Deals

The U.S. EPA’s new Smartway program aims to help shippers reduce the climate impacts of cargo. A good backgrounder on the topic is available from Business for Social Responsibility. Green Shipping World offers a directory of regulations, organizations, and awards. GreenBiz offers two free publications: Questionnaires for the Purchase of Environmentally Sound Transportation and Good Practice in Freight Transport.