Could your international shipments be more sustainable?

by Array

MM&D magazine November-December 2010: For many people, the link between supply chains and carbon footprints is obvious. Raw materials and products must be moved from point A to point B, and their transits invariably have an impact on the environment.

However, that doesn’t mean that international shippers are exempt from the requirement to be good environmental stewards—or that they should consider every drop of fuel they burn to be a necessity.

With that in mind, take a moment to assess how green your international shipments are and how much greener they could be by asking yourself these 10 simple questions.

Are we transporting our internationally sourced goods via ship or air? If you want to be as green as possible, opt for maritime instead of air shipments when possible. Water transportation creates far less carbon dioxide per tonne shipped or kilometre traveled than any other mode. In fact, according to data from the Network for Transport and the Environment, air shipments emit approximately 35 times more carbon dioxide than ocean container shipments.

What size containers do we use? When it comes to choosing the container size best for the environment, bigger (45, 48 and 53ft) is generally better if you have enough cargo, because it results in fewer drayage-to-rail moves or cross-docks.  For example, by using 53-foot ocean containers instead of 40-footers your company could require 33-percent fewer containers, because it’s possible to fit the contents of three 40-footers into two 53-footers.

Since 53-foot trucks are routinely used for domestic transportation, using them for ocean not only saves any carbon emissions associated with trans-loading but reduces operating costs, increases speed-to-market, reduces cargo damage and minimizes potential theft. Simply put, you’ll have fewer handoffs and less carbon to worry about. Choosing the right size of container will also result in less re-handling and/or consolidation at your warehouses.

What kinds of fuels and fuel treatments do our transportation providers use? Container yard tractors and container handling equipment running on biodiesel fuel blends can help reduce particulate matter emissions by as much as 80 percent. In addition, some ocean carriers use cleaner, low-sulfur diesel fuel when operating near or at certain ports.

How fast are the vessels that carry our goods moving? Slower-steaming vessels consume less fuel and emit less carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

How “electric” are the ships and terminals we use? During a single 24-hour port call, cold ironing (connecting a ship to an electric power source so it can shut down its diesel-powered engines) can help eliminate approximately 1,000lb of nitrogen oxides emissions, 70lb of sulfur oxides and 15lb of particulates.

Most modern ports use electric gantry cranes and have ample electrical plugs for refrigerated containers. Terminal operators should be using this grid-based power whenever possible.

Which do we use more of—trains or trucks? Trains are far greener than trucks, emitting nearly two-thirds less carbon dioxide. So use rail for the final leg of your products’ journey whenever you can. In addition, look for ports that have on-dock rail operations, which eliminates the need to move containers from ships to trains via truck.

How efficient is our gate and container yard operation? All terminals are not created equal. The way your carriers’ terminals operate can have a substantial effect on how long truckers have to wait for their drayage loads—and how much time they spend idling, consuming fuel and creating pollution. Try to use terminals that are “trucker friendly”.

How efficient is our inbound logistics overseas? Your overseas suppliers may know the ins and outs of their country’s transportation infrastructure quite well, they may not have access to or expertise in using the state-of-the-art routing and other freight management tools that can minimize miles traveled. The greener choice might be to take responsibility for optimizing inbound overseas deliveries yourself—or to find a global 3PL in that region that can.

Would we be greener if we were using goods produced within our country instead of sourcing them globally? According to the World Shipping Council, which addressed this same question in a 2009 report, the answer is usually no—provided you’re using ocean transportation rather than air and ship goods to ports located near end users. A large containership emits approximately half of the greenhouse gases that trains do and one-sixth the greenhouse gases associated with trucks.

So often—as the wine industry found out in 2007 when it compared the carbon footprint of shipping a bottle of French wine to a New York restaurant versus shipping a bottle of California wine there—companies engaging in international shipping might actually be greener than companies that aren’t.

There are numerous excellent resources and programs designed to help your company succeed in its quest to become a greener shipper.

Taking the time to study up on these promising industry initiatives will always be a wise use of energy.

Earl Agron is vice-president of corporate security and environmental affairs at APL and APL Logistics.