Consumerism is despoiling our oceans. Most of the goods we humans consume, particularly in Western countries, are manufactured in low-cost countries and shipped by ocean cargo freighters.
Many cargo ships still use bunker fuel, the sludgy dregs of the petroleum refining process. The noxious blend is dirt-cheap, making it possible to charge next to nothing to ship goods internationally. All of which means the cheap products meeting our consumerism needs are transported on some of the dirtiest vehicles on earth.
I have just finished viewing the documentary “Freightened“ and I must say it depressed the hell out me. I have known for some time there has been an issue with the cruise ship industry and ocean pollution (see Cruise Ship post) but until I viewed Freightened, I did not know the extent of the degradation of our oceans caused by the shipping industry.
The most notable point of the film is the filthy nature of the fuel that freighters run on. It is basically the waste of the waste from a theoretical barrel of crude oil, leftover after the crude has been refined into gasoline, diesel, kerosene, jet fuel, and the various other consumable fuel products we humans use to generate heat and power with. It is thick, tarry, sulfur-rich treacle. Black shit that has absolutely no use other than fueling and driving floating steel colossus that plie the earth’s oceans hauling mass-produced crap from China and other third world countries to mass consumers of the same crap in the western world.
One freighter or container ship, the length of six football fields running 365 days a year emits as much sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere as fifty million cars in a year. Think about that and crunch the numbers on over 70,000 cargo ships in the world’s merchant fleets as of January 2018. It is estimated the pollution from freighters causes over 60,000 premature deaths each year. The high sulfur emissions from ship fuel create hot zones of pollution in large ports like Rotterdam, Hamburg, Hongkong, and Newark, New Jersey where there is a higher than average incidence of respiratory illnesses.
How do freighters pollute and impact on the planet’s ocean? A number of different ways.
Every year, an estimated 550 containers are lost overboard. Depending on what they contain, some of these containers float and become shipping hazards for smaller ships and pleasure craft. Some containers hold material that is hazardous to sea life. Most will sink, though it can take up to two months for standard-sized containers to reach the seafloor. A refrigerated container might be buoyed by its insulation and drift on the seas for longer.
The average lifespan of a freighter is 30 years. Developing countries, mainly the Indian subcontinent are in the business of breaking up freighters that have come to the end of their life. Ships are run ashore on sand tidal beaches at high tide so that they can be more easily accessed for breaking. After a ship is grounded and secured by anchors and chains, it takes more than 50 laborers three months to break down a normal-sized cargo vessel of about 40,000 tons.
This breaking is done by hand using sledgehammers, gas cutting torches, and manual labor. Health issues among workers is a major issue with dangerous vapors and fumes from burning materials being inhaled by the workers who receive no protective equipment from the companies who employ them. Asbestos dust, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls, and heavy metals are just part of the dangerous substances they are in contact with. Burns from explosions and fire, suffocation, mutilation from falling metal, cancer, and disease from toxins are part of the job. The life span of these workers? Don’t ask.
If global shipping was a country, it would be the sixth-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Only the United States, China, Russia, India, and Japan emit more carbon dioxide than the world’s shipping fleet. Carbon dioxide emissions from ocean-going vessels are currently unregulated. Along with CO2 and sulfur, ships emit various global warming pollutants, including black carbon (BC), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
Black carbon from ships could slow global warming, buying time for further steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Black carbon, more commonly known as soot, is made up of fine particles created by the incomplete combustion of a carbon fuel source such as oil or coal. Aging engines and poor engine maintenance contribute to incomplete combustion. Black carbon increases warming in two ways; through direct absorption of heat in the top of the atmosphere and by lowering the Earth’s reflectivity. Unlike greenhouse gases, black carbon is a solid and not a gas and it warms by absorbing sunlight, rather than absorbing infrared or terrestrial radiation.
Garbage thrown illegally from cargo ships is the likely source of thousands of plastic containers washed up on beaches and littering the sea. Tens of thousands of plastic drink bottles are washing up on remote, uninhabited islands in the South Atlantic, and researchers say they’re evidence of illegal dumping from cargo ships.
Ships have been strictly banned from throwing trash overboard for more than 30 years but due to the lack of policing it continues unabated. Cargo ships are responsible for most of the bottles floating in the central South Atlantic Ocean. This dumping is in contravention of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships regulations. A new international study published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says the dumping of sewage in the high seas is another issue shipping companies around the world are turning a blind eye to.
The big issue is global trade. Cheap products, mainly consumed in the west are shipped on our oceans. As consumers, we need to begin asking: where are the products we are buying coming from? Can I support the degradation of the oceans? The merchant marine industry cares little for regulations. Profit is the name of the game. Badly built and badly maintained ships, poorly paid and overworked crews, cheap and filthy fuel and garbage tossed overboard are a few of the problems. There are many many more.
As consumers, the solution begins with us.
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Post Image Credit: Angela Compagne, Unsplash