Ocean Freight Sustainability Goes Far Beyond the Shore

By analyzing real-time data and choosing the most efficient modes throughout the journey, freight can be moved without wasted efforts and resources.

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Reducing the environmental impact of the global shipping industry has become a red-hot topic. Not only do vessels run on particularly dirty fuel, they can also wait hours or even days to get into a port, generating emissions the whole time. International shipping produces nearly 3% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — about the same as the aviation industry.

From New York to Portland, from Galveston to Long Beach, sustainability is on the minds and agendas of ports around North America. For example, the Port of New York and New Jersey has set a goal of reaching net zero by 2050 as well as achieving a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions between now and 2035.

While there are many approaches and technologies being developed to lessen the environmental impact of ocean-sailing vessels, many of the most promising strategies available today focus on two efforts: improving data and optimizing how goods are handled once they’re taken off the vessel.

Transloading and Moving Freight Efficiently

Freight can be delayed getting out of ports for reasons that range from lack of available equipment to no place to put the goods. Efficient transloading – the process of moving freight from one mode of transportation to another – can keep goods in motion, cutting out days and weeks of them sitting in a warehouse. Transloading has taken on heightened interest since the pandemic, with the Panama Canal drought restrictions and other disruptions raising the need for agility.

From an environmental standpoint, optimized transloading facilitates efficient transfers between different transportation modes, streamlining routes and encouraging more fuel-efficient modes of transport. For example, freight from an ocean container can be divided after arriving at the port of discharge and loaded into rail cars heading to various destinations, saving time and money while reducing fuel usage compared to utilizing LTL (less than container) trucking methods for delivery.

Riding the Rails

On-dock rail is also catching steam in response to the sustainability movement. For goods that must travel a significant distance inland, it is much more efficient to place containers straight from a vessel onto a train – ideally, a double-stack train – compared to putting them on trucks. Trains can carry more goods in fewer trips, with greater fuel efficiency per ton mile.

The port of Long Beach has declared 2024 to be “the year of the rail.” The port has begun construction on a state-of-the-art Pier B On-Dock Rail Support Facility, which will more than triple the amount of on-dock rail cargo the port can handle. The $1.5 billion project will allow trains up to 10,000 feet long to be taken apart and assembled more frequently.

As a result, more cargo will be moved with less of an environmental impact, improving air quality and reducing traffic congestion.

Aligning Stakeholders with Better Data

Success in meeting sustainability goals will also require the industry to use data more effectively. The further out stakeholders can establish when vessels and the goods they’re carrying will arrive at ports, the better decisions they can make about the most effective and environmentally friendly way to send those goods to their next destination.

With better data, efficiency and environmental gains go hand-in-hand. Imagine you have one child who is ready to go to school while another is ready to come home — wouldn’t it be most efficient to transport both children in one single round trip? Similarly, shippers prefer a truck that delivers a full container to bring back an empty container, or vice versa.

However, too many companies are hindered by outdated information and manual analysis of inbound shipments that can take days to complete. Knowing when the vessel will arrive at port is not enough, as some large container vessels can take a day or two days to discharge. If stakeholders can identify when, say, a container will be available for pick-up or out-gate, they will be better prepared to transport that container in the most efficient manner.

In addition, a better understanding and coordination of scheduling containers to be picked up from terminals can produce meaningful efficiency and environmental gains. Doing so requires all stakeholders to operate from a single source of truth, with real-time insights at a container level — having this information can streamline communications.

Making the movement of goods across oceans more sustainable is a team effort that will require all of us to work together with our oars in the water. By analyzing real-time data and choosing the most efficient modes throughout the journey, freight can be moved without wasted efforts and resources.