The challenges of waste management in the shipping and transportation industry


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Today, individuals and businesses can send and receive shipments from almost anywhere. With enough time and resources, you can find the right channels to get things where you need them to go.

The shipping and transportation sector is a thriving industry that helps power the global economy. It also generates a large amount of waste, and dealing with that waste is a major concern for shipping companies, government agencies and environmental organizations.

Waste Management in Transport and Shipping

The logistics industry creates waste through transport materials, warehouse activities, vehicle maintenance, packaging and office waste. Some of this waste is hazardous. Waste produced while a ship is in transit must be stored on board until the next time the ship comes to port.

Shipping waste management today is highly regulated by governments around the world. In the United States, for example, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) are the main laws regulating this sector.

For many years, state laws for managing shipping waste closely resembled federal laws. However, some of these federal laws, such as CERCLA, are older. Since the laws went into effect, states have changed their regulations, leading to a mismatch in expectations. Differences in laws among various countries can also create challenges. Shipping companies have to pay close attention to make sure they follow all existing regulations.

Fraud and Mismanagement

Sometimes though, companies break these rules — both incidentally and intentionally.

For instance, a company that imports computer cable assemblies recently settled violated claims to the tune of $1.2 million that it underpaid customs fees on goods imported from China and broke federal customs laws. This is certainly not the only instance like this.

Some of this management stems from the oil and gas industry, a sector that’s closely linked to the transportation industry. The state of Massachusetts, for instance, recently recovered $7.9 million through an investigation into claims that Shell Oil misused a fund meant for the cleanup of contaminated gas stations.

Oil spills, and incidents involving other hazardous materials, are another common issue within the shipping industry. According to U.S. law, the organization responsible for an oil spill must pay for its cleanup, although the Coast Guard works on the spill first and is repaid by the company later. The cost of oil spills is nearly immeasurable in terms of environmental damage, and climbs easily into the tens of millions of dollars in cleanup charges and legal fees. Purposeful dumping of hazardous materials is another common issue regulators continue to try to crack down on.

Environmental Impact

Spilled oil is poisonous to marine life. It can smother small fish and other creatures and coat the feathers and fur of birds and sea mammals such as otters, inhibiting their ability to maintain their body temperature. Spilled or dumped hazardous materials can also destroy marine habitats and persist for long periods of time in the water.

Shipping things long distances also requires a large amount of fuel, increasing the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere. Emissions are an especially big issue when it comes to ocean transport, as shipping fuels contain much higher amounts of sulfur than the fuel used in cars. One environmental expert estimated the world’s 16 largest ships emitted more sulfur than all the cars in the world combined.

The European Union estimates maritime shipping accounts for 2.5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that emissions will increase by as much as 250 percent by 2050. When factoring in ground and air shipping, that number soars even higher.

Revising Waste Management Norms

As environmental concerns become even more central, governments around the world are attempting to double down on reducing emissions and waste from shipping. U.S. states are finding shipping waste between states is not cost-effective, and are instead focusing their efforts on reducing the amount of waste they create.

The EU has called for a global approach to curbing shipping-related emissions led by the International Maritime Organization. To meet the goal laid out in the Paris climate accord, many nations are looking to shipping as a way to reduce emissions.

In addition to a push from government and environmental concerns, some shipping companies are also seeking to reduce waste as a cost-saving measure. They’re reusing more materials to avoid purchasing new ones, and cutting waste-management costs by reducing the amount of waste they produce.

The shipping and transportation industry is an important part of our global economy, but it also has a significant effect on the environment and presents other challenges as well. Now, governments, shipping companies and individuals must work to balance the need to transport goods with waste management needs and environmental protection.

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