The Environmental Cost of Moving All Our Stuff is Huge. How Can We Shrink it?

December 14, 2015
With more than 50,000 ships and 3 million trucks transporting goods around the world, opportunities to reduce our impact abound.

Much of the stuff around us at any given moment — be it product, commodity or raw material — was once on a boat. To get from wherever it was made or processed or harvested to wherever it’s used or consumed, all this stuff embarks on a seaborne journey around the world. It happens thousands of times a day, on tens of thousands of vessels moving from port to port. Ships handle roughly 90 percent of global trade, nearly 10 billion metric tons (11 billion tons) of stuff per year.

Boats and ports are only a part of the picture. Airlines, railroads, trucks, warehouses, refrigerators, delivery people — the international system of goods movement is integral to the way we live in the 21st century. It also is a huge source of opportunity to reduce humans’ environmental footprint.

The 10 billion tons of stuff shipped around the planet in 2014 is two-thirds more than what was moved in 2000. “Retail sales in the United States and across the world are increasing, in spite of all the economic cycles,” says Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a professor at Hofstra University and an expert in transport geography. “There’s more people, there’s more consumption.”

It’s been estimated that shipping accounts for 3 to 4 percent of human-caused carbon emissions.More than 47,000 big ships handle the bulk of this cargo, most of which (by weight) is made up of crude oil, iron ore, coal and other building blocks of the modern world. About 6,100 container ships carry the consumer goods we’re more likely to encounter and purchase — the televisions and socks and frying pans of day-to-day life. Transported around the world in standardized containers, it is this stuff that has dramatically transformed shipping from a dockside hustle of men hauling crates to a highly mechanized, multimodal system that can have a box of South American bananas off a boat and on sale in the U.S. within hours.