Is Sustainable Shipping Really a Thing?
A guy walks into the airport with a pair of suitcases.
“I’d like this one to go to New York,” he says lifting one bag, “and this one to LA.”
“Sir, we can’t do that,” says the agent.
“Why not? It happened last time.”
We are hopelessly dependent on shipping.
When luggage is lost or a package gets delayed, one thing becomes clear—shipping is a lifeline. If it stops, wars happen.
The Boston Tea Party? They dumped that tea to spite a British shipping company. Genghis Khan’s empire blew up after he gained control of the Silk Road. The economy barely survived the 2021 blocking of the Suez Canal. And the year before, getting mail got us to put on pants.
Everybody needs shipping, but who knows what goes on after you place an order, before it arrives? That’s big league industry talk.
Here’s the thing: there’s a lot of talk about eco-friendly products and manufacturing, but what about once that stuff leaves the store? Is there such a thing as sustainable shipping?
The Nuts & Bolts of Shipping
Thanks to online shopping, stuff is sent around the globe at the click of a button. It’s convenient and comfortable, and it’s really fun to get mail (the good kind, at least).
What you don’t see is all the transportation used to move products from A to B. Boats, trains, trucks and those weird USPS Jeeps without doors all play a part. All of them run on fossil fuels.
How Is Most Stuff Shipped?
After sorting, packages are loaded into a 45-50 foot shipping container (those boxes people make houses from). This is where things get interesting.
Far and away, the most popular way to ship things is with actual ships.
Sea freight handles 90% of everything that gets shipped, and it’s easy to see why.
Ship capacity defies imagination. Some ocean barges can carry over 20,000 tons. For size, picture a line of 18-wheeler trucks stretching over 11 miles. That’s how much cargo we’re talking, on one boat.
Sea freight also costs way less than other methods, ringing up at around 25 cents per pound (for reference, air freight costs 6-8 TIMES as much). One ton of sea freight can travel more than 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Compare that to 59 miles per gallon by truck or 200 miles per gallon by train.
But there’s an obvious problem: while sea freight is efficient, nobody gets their mail from a harbor. We need trucks and railroads to move freight across land.
The Environmental Cost of Shipping
Boats, trains, trucks and planes all need fuel. This means CO2 emissions, which is one reason why buying local is always a good idea.
But what about when you can’t? What’s the most eco-friendly way to ship?
First, steer clear of air freight. Jet fuel emits 5-10 times more CO2 than any other fuel when it's burned. Since air freight is pricey, staying away from this option shouldn’t be too hard.
Trucking is the next biggest polluter, followed by train shipping. After that, it’s local traffic that gets mail to your door.
Making Shipping Eco-Friendly
Frankly, unless we switch to fleets of bicycle couriers, CO2 emissions will keep happening. The best thing you can do is reuse what you have and cut back where possible.
Some other ways you can help are to:
- Buy in bulk: less packaging is always better, so do what you can to limit the number of boxes needed to fill your order
- Limit return shipping: even though some online stores make returns free and easy, doing so doubles CO2 emissions
- Look for carbon neutral shipping: try to buy from stores that fund green energy as a way to minimize their carbon footprint
What about the shipping industry itself? Is anything happening to reduce their environmental impact?
Green Shipping Innovation
Boats, trains and 18-wheelers all use diesel fuel. If things are to change, it’ll have to start in the fuel tank.
One of the most exciting innovations is the hydrogen fuel cell. By charging an electric battery with only hydrogen, these motors don’t need oil and don’t emit carbon. So where are all the hydrogen cars and trucks?
Lagging, of course. Despite knowing the harms of carbon pollution, Big Oil isn’t exactly eager to lose grip on a trillion-dollar cash cow. They’re even taking part in the hydrogen revolution to keep it from getting too far away.
In the meantime, do your best to support green energy while weaning off oil dependence. It’s a big change that takes some adjusting, but it’s worth it for a planet we can live on.