A ship is different from a ship

How harmful are container ships to the environment? Not an easy question. With professional help from Schaffhausen, we have found a clear answer: They cause less damage than the cultivation of the food transported by ship.

Container ships pollute the environment. In terms of environmental pollution, ship transport is hardly relevant for the entire life cycle per kilogram of food.

The largest freighters in the world transport over 20,000 containers at once. They are ships that are almost 400 meters long and 60 meters wide. Their engines have an output of up to 80,000 hp.

Of course, not all container ships are such giants. According to Alphaliner, the 6137 freighters currently on the move around the world have one thing in common: CO2 and other greenhouse gases, nitrogen and sulfur oxides, fine dust and soot escape from their exhausts.

Chemicals from the paint on the hulls end up in the sea. Coolants, machine oils and cleaning agents can escape. Living things travel along in ballast tanks and on the ship's side, displacing native species and changing entire ecosystems.

It all sounds like a pretty dirty business. And that's it.

But how dirty are the ships really? What does this mean for gebana products? What influence does this have on their ecological balance? Complicated questions! That is why we asked the Swiss consulting firm ESU-services for support.

The team from the Schaffhausen company worked through numerous studies, databases and specialist literature for us. In the end, an extensive analysis was carried out that confirmed our assumptions:

  1. From a global perspective, shipping is relevant when it comes to impacts on climate, the environment and health.
  2. Transport by ship hardly plays a role in the life cycle assessment of a product.

Container ships only make up a quarter of international shipping

Let's look at the figures that ESU-services has compiled: In 2012, international shipping caused 2 percent of global CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and fluorocarbons. Container ships make up around a quarter of international shipping and thus generate around 0.5 percent of global emissions.

Organizations such as the Naturschutzbund Deutschland take this view too one-sided. The figures on CO2 emissions are not sufficient to evaluate the ecological balance of the container ships, it says on its website. The nitrogen and sulfur oxides as well as fine dust and soot are at least as relevant and also more dangerous than CO2.

Higher values ​​for emissions of nitrogen and sulfur oxides

The criticism of the Naturschutzbund is justified: In 2015, international shipping emitted 12.5 percent of global nitrogen oxide emissions and 9 percent of sulfur oxides. In addition, 2.5 percent of the fine dust blown into the atmosphere worldwide and 6 percent of the soot particles. The container ships alone were responsible for around a quarter of these emissions.

Nitrogen and sulfur oxides damage the human respiratory tract and impair plant growth and ecosystems in the water through acid rain. They can also lead to excessive and therefore harmful plant growth (eutrophication). Fine dust and soot reduce air quality and contribute to respiratory diseases. Especially near the coast, it would be important that ships emit fewer of these pollutants.

Lower limit values ​​in force since the beginning of 2020

This has now also arrived at the political level: Since the beginning of 2020, fuels or exhaust gases from ships have only been allowed to contain a maximum of 0.5 percent sulfur. That is still too much, says the Naturschutzbund. The organization requires limit values ​​of 0.005 percent. Compared to 2019, the new regulation is still an important improvement. At that time, a limit of 3.5 percent applied.

There are also so-called Emission control areas, which include the North and Baltic Seas and a large part of the North American coast. The limit here has been 0.1 percent since 2015. Measurements in Hamburg showed that in the first year after the introduction of the new limit values, around 95 percent of the ships complied with them.

Comparison with other means of transport important

However, all these figures only help us to a limited extent to really judge the container ships. We must therefore compare it with other modes of transport. So let's try to be a little more specific.

We take one kilogram of a product from overseas and transport it to Europe once by ship and once by plane. We take into account the transport from the production site to the airport and seaport as well as the transport from the destination to the shop in Europe.

  • Scenario 1: ship
    The total distance in this scenario is 10,295 kilometers. The ship covers 9,000 kilometers, and our product is in one train for 360 kilometers. It is on the road in a truck for 935 kilometers.

  • Scenario 2: airplane
    At 7,495 kilometers, the total distance in this scenario is shorter than for transport by ship. This is because the aircraft can fly approximately along the straight line. In this scenario, the aircraft covers 7,000 kilometers. The remaining 495 kilometers are transports to and from the airport by truck.

We now evaluate both scenarios in two ways:

  • Variant 1, the environmental pollution points
    This is where the resources used for transport and all pollutant emissions are found. It starts with water and energy consumption, continues through mineral and land use, climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, air pollutants and dust, air pollutants that cause cancer, water pollutants and noise to radioactive substances.

  • Variant 2, the contribution to climate change
    Here we only consider greenhouse gas emissions. The calculation takes into account CO2, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorocarbons.

Result variant 1:

Transport by plane causes 20 times more pollution than transport by ship:

  • plane
    We cover 93 percent of the distance by plane. That causes 98 percent of the environmental impact in this scenario.

  • ship
    We transport our product 87 percent of the way by ship. That causes 38 percent of the environmental impact in this scenario. 57 percent go to the account of the truck, 5 percent to that of the train.

Result variant 2:

The airplane makes a 55 times bigger contribution to climate change than the ship and causes 99 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions. In scenario 2, the ship is responsible for 36 percent of the emissions. The biggest problem here is again the truck with 59 percent.

Conclusion: The efficiency of a means of transport plays a more important role in the environmental impact than the distance.

Cultivation has a far greater impact on the environment than transport

It gets really interesting when we look at the life cycle assessment of individual foods instead of the means of transport. Let's look at almonds, chocolate, coffee, bananas, and rice.

Transport by container ship is only responsible for 0.4 to 6.8 percent of the environmental pollution caused by one kilogram of these products. Other means of transport such as trucks cause 1.3 to 10.3 percent of the pollution.

Most of the environmental pollution is due to cultivation. With bananas, cultivation causes around 75 percent of the pollution per kilogram of fruit, with coffee and rice it is over 90 percent.

Conclusion: yes, ships are a burden for the environment. In terms of environmental pollution, ship transport is hardly relevant for the entire life cycle per kilogram of food.

Shipping is slowly getting better

This calculation does not change the real problem: ships are dirty and they have to get cleaner. That is why the UN specialized agency International Maritime Organization adopted new reduction targets for container ships in 2018. The targets were originally valid for 2025, but are now binding from 2022: From then on, depending on their size, newly built container ships will have to be 30 to 50 percent more energy-efficient than those from 2014.

Initiatives like the Clean Shipping Index or the Environmental Ship Index rely on financial incentives. The initiatives work with ports that offer shipping companies discounts or other advantages if they have their ships assessed and certified for their environmental impact by the organizations. The better a ship is rated, the more favorable conditions it receives in the participating ports.

For now, we ourselves concentrate on the things that we can really influence: the beginning of the supply chain and its end. Because, from our point of view, these are the most important factors that shape the ecological balance of our products.

We influence these factors by working together to change the rules of the game: We act differently, you buy differently. We produce more and more sustainably and fairly. You order large packs, share them with friends and family and avoid food waste.


You can download the full study by ESU-services here.

Sources used

"Environmental pollution of ship transports: Fact sheet for public discussion", a study carried out by ESU-service, commissioned by gebana

"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from ships", International Maritime Organization (http://www.imo.org/en/MediaCentre/HotTopics/Pages/Reducing-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-ships.aspx, accessed on July 30, 2020 )

Emission Control Areas, Wikipedia (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emission_Control_Area, accessed on July 30, 2020)

Containerschiff, Wikipedia (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Containerschiff, accessed on 07/30/2020)

Photo: Andy Li, (https://unsplash.com/photos/CpsTAUPoScw)