Shipping on trial – the true cost of buying online 


Environment Journal reporter Pippa Neill investigates the true air pollution cost of our online shopping habits.  

Picture the scene – it’s a Friday evening, you’re watching TV while scrolling on your phone and you see your next must-buy purchase that you just need in order to get you through another dreary weekend spent in lockdown. You tap and without even having to enter your card details the parcel is with you by noon the next day. It’s like magic, but what’s the catch?  

How does it work?   

It takes a lot of complicated logistics to enable online retailers to provide us with next-day delivery and believe it or not the journey is a lot longer than the 24-hours between your order and your receival. If we take Amazon for example, the largest e-retailer in the world: most of the products sold on the website begin their life in China, where they are produced and created in factories and workshops across the country. Once these products have been made, they then travel across the country where they are loaded into gigantic freight containers and sent on even bigger ships to their designated country. Once the ship arrives, the products are unloaded and are held at fulfilment centres, waiting for you to press ‘pay now’ so it can be packed up and sent off to the courier.  

When it comes to air pollution, the shipping of these products poses a serious problem, Aoife O’Leary, director of international climate at the Environmental Defence Fund explains: ‘Shipping is extremely cost effective, but one of the reasons it is so cheap is because of the fuels used. When you extract oil from the ground you refine it, the topgrade stuff goes to aeroplanes, the middle stuff goes to cars, and then whatever’s left at the bottom of the barrel is either used to tarmac roads or power ships.   

‘There has been some regulation over time about the sulphur content of this fuel, meaning it has improved somewhat, but it still contains about 300 times more particulates than you would get in a car, and with freight rates at historic highs, this is a problem.’  

Reducing this pollution  

Over the last few decades, the air pollution impact of shipping has somewhat slipped under the radar, this is largely because the majority of the pollution happens out at sea where there are few people around to be exposed to it.  

However, ships do spend a sizable portion of their time moored in harbours and ports. For example, a merchant vessel that carries cargo can spend up to 100 days a year moored at a port. While at the ports, most large ships keep their engines running in order to generate electricity for their onboard systems – meaning they are pumping out vast amounts of air pollution to the air where many people live and work.  

In a bid to tackle this in 2019 the government asked all ports over a certain size to produce a comprehensive clean air strategy, they were required to outline the sources of the pollution and outline the actions they will take to reduce it. However, these strategies have a focus on the action that can be taken within the ports themselves, the trucks coming in and out, the port equipment, the machinery etc, meaning that when it comes to reducing pollution from the ships themselves, this is far from a solution.   

‘It’s difficult because all ports are very different,’ says Mark Simmonds, director of policy and external affairs at the British Port Association (BPA).  

‘They’re in different places, they’re of different sizes, they have different ships coming in and they’re in different proximity to population centres. 

‘But also, the problem is that most of the air pollution at the ports actually comes from the ships, and the ports don’t have a huge amount of control over what the ships do, they are our customers and at the end of the day the ports don’t have many levers they can pull.’  

 However, Aoife O’Leary highlights that ships…

Read More: Shipping on trial – the true cost of buying online 

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