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.