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Environmental issues that affect the shipping industry world wide

Environmental issues that affect the shipping industry world wide


Nowadays the shipping industry in the world is facing the hardest of all times. Many companies from China to Latvia are filing for bankruptcy because freight rates are hitting rock bottom prices and demand for imports in many countries is decreasing. There are other factors that are affecting the shipping industry such as a downturn on record due to stalling demand for iron ore and coal from China and a global surplus of vessels. Another factor that is now starting to affect the industry is the environmentalists and their demands for a cleaner and safer operation in harmony with all the plants and wildlife found in the sea. The list of demands is incredibly large, but here are the main points where environmentalists are focusing their efforts to make a radical change in the shipping industry and at the same time they contribute to the large list of problems the industry is having.  

One of the main points that affect the shipping industry and that environmentalists focus on is atmospheric pollution. The growth in tonne per kilometres of sea shipment has averaged 4 percent yearly since the 1990s  and it has grown by a factor of 5 since the 1970s. There are now over 100,000 transport ships at sea, of which about 6,000 are large container ships. It is believed that ships don’t contribute to air pollution as air transport or vehicles, but it is a wrong perception because sea shipment accounts for far more annual tonnage and the distances are often large, therefore emissions are globally substantial. The shipping industry has invested heavily to improve the emission of these types of pollutants which include conventional pollutants and greenhouse pollutants.

Another impact of environmental issues on the shipping industry is the stress for improvement that local authorities at ports are imposing to vessels visiting or that are just docked at port. One example is in Baton Rouge/New Orleans where large marine diesel engines are believed to contribute 7 percent of mobile source nitrogen oxide emissions and authorities are now seeking to impose special taxes to polluting vessels. Ships can also have a significant impact in areas without large commercial ports: they contribute about 37 percent of total area nitrogen oxide emissions in the Santa Barbara area, and that percentage is expected to increase to 61 percent for this year due to the large movement of cruise liners around the world.  Shipboard incinerators also burn large volumes of garbage, plastics, and other waste, producing ash that must be disposed of. These large contributions to air pollution have exposed the industry to special taxes and regulations imposed by authorities whom are now becoming more expensive or harder to handle, thus, making some shipping companies revaluate their operations and destinations.

Oil spills are the most common and most expensive environmental issues coming from the shipping industry. Maybe it is not as common as the pollution caused by day to day operations but it has more devastating effects. While being toxic to marine life, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the components in crude oil, are very difficult to clean, and last for years in the sediment and marine environment. Marine species constantly exposed to PAHs can exhibit developmental problems, susceptibility to disease, and abnormal reproductive cycles. The shipping industry in general is constantly under attack from environmentalist on these types of issues as they are the ones that attract more attention from the media. Regulations and taxes for the shipping industry have cost companies a great deal of their investments to adapt vessels and train staff to meet international standards.

Image courtesy of NOAA's National Ocean Service at
Image courtesy of NOAA’s National Ocean Service at

Another environmental issue that is affecting the industry as a whole is the management of bilge water. There is a part of the ship in the bottom called the bilge, which is the lowest part of the hull. This part accumulates oil that leaks from engine and machinery spaces or from engine maintenance activities and mixes with water in the bilge. This water has to be discharged to maintain ship stability not before clearing it form oil. If a separator, which is normally used to extract the oil, is faulty or is deliberately bypassed, untreated oily bilge water could be discharged directly into the ocean, where it can damage marine life. Not many ships do this process which makes them liable for fines and environmental related problems with authorities.

The shipping industry is now under the scope due to many factors occurring around the world that are making the industry shrink and many companies to file for bankruptcy. Environmental issues are not that big yet, but as the topic of global warming gets more trendy, vessels and the industry in general need to be aware of international and local changes in regulations so they can navigate in these harsh economic waters.


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