4 Technologies Primed to Change Eco-Friendly Shipping

Apr 17, 2024

Shipping and logistics is presently one of the world’s highest-polluting industries. Its natural connection to virtually every other industry in existence (including other major polluters like agriculture, retail and construction) makes shipping both a visible source of environmental harm and a popular target for increasingly stringent emissions standards.

These regulations — amplified by a growing call for eco-friendly shipping practices from consumers intrigued by the idea of not ruining the entire planet — have logistics professionals working hard to make global shipping a more sustainable, carbon-neutral venture through newly integrated tech, alternative fuels and revamped infrastructure.

Here are four of the most exciting eco-friendly logistics developments currently in the works:

Methanol-Fuelled Vessels

The search for viable alternate fuels isn’t limited to just one solution — liquid hydrogen, biofuel, advanced battery systems and fuel cells are all still very much in play — but when it comes to options offering immediate environmental relief, methanol leads the pack.

Methanol is a simple, biodegradable alcohol boasting lower levels of harmful particulate matter (pollutants hazardous to our sensitive lungs and the environment at large) compared to traditional fossil fuels.

Most methanol used today is manufactured with natural gas to keep production costs comparable to standard gasoline. Though this conventional methanol emits up to 80% less nitrogen oxides and cuts nearly 99% of sulfur oxide emissions compared to traditional fuel oil, it still emits CO2.

“Green” methanol — derived from biomass or captured carbon and hydrogen — costs twice as much to produce, but can reportedly reduce a container ship’s CO2 emissions by 60-95%. That’s a crucial innovation, since container ships release an annual average of 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (and even that figure is less than a third of a bulk carrier’s annual emissions).

For international shippers, methanol fuel ticks three more industry-specific boxes:

  • First, though it does take up more than twice the storage space of traditional gasoline, a decent energy density and high octane rating makes Methanol a bigger space-saver compared to liquid hydrogen.
  • Second, the tech to outfit or retrofit deep-sea shipping vessels with methanol-based systems already exists (unlike advanced fuel cells, which still have a ways to go).
  • Third, adoption of methanol-fuelled vessels doesn’t require a total overhaul of the world’s existing port infrastructure.

As of February, 29 methanol-fuelled vessels are in full operation with 228 more reportedly in production and slated to set sail by 2028.

…Let’s just remember to include safety equipment designed to fight methanol-based fires at sea this time, yes?

Marine Carbon Capture

While we’re on the subject of near-term eco-friendly solutions for ocean freight (which, by the way, accounts for roughly 80% of all shipped goods — nearly 11 billion tons’ worth), let’s not overlook on-board marine carbon capture tech.

Carbon capture systems have already proven capable of mitigating emissions produced by on-shore factories and power plants, but repurposing these systems to capture, compress and store CO2 for safe offloading at sea introduces several challenges:

  • Carbon capture systems takes up space
  • They also require energy in the form of fuel — some existing systems increase fuel use by a third just to catch half of the emitted CO2
  • One ton of combusted fuel creates about three tons of stored CO2
  • The added mass of the collected CO2 weighs ships down and reduces fuel efficiency
  • The extra fuel now needed to move a heavier load and recharge the capture system risks putting us right back to where we started

Now for some good news: there’s a ton of money waiting for whichever sustainable ship-building company figures this thing out first, which means the race to integrate an efficient CCS onboard a large shipping vessel has already been in full sprint since at least 2018. Since March, the following contenders have made vast improvements to on-board carbon capture:

  • Taiwan-based container shipping company Evergreen recently outfitted a vessel with a system reportedly capable of capturing 80% of the vessel’s CO2 emissions — the first such system installed on a Neopanamax container vessel (a container ship capable of traversing the Panama Canal).
  • London startup Seabound retrofitted a container ship with a compact system designed to convert CO2 and sulfur emissions into chalk, with its initial test proving a 78% carbon capture efficiency.
  • Researchers at MIT are skipping the air-removal element entirely and aiming to remove CO2 directly from ocean water — noting that oceans already act as an effective air filter, soaking up somewhere between 30-40% of all man-made gasses.

Infrastructure hurdles await any of these solutions as most ports aren’t currently equipped to offload or repurpose CO2 captured at sea, but the early returns from experiments like those above hold promise for revolutionizing maritime transport’s approach to sustainable shipping.

Biodegradable Packaging Materials

Sustainable products and shipping practices are far from a passing trend — just last year, 81% of polled consumers said they’d refuse to buy products that aren’t packaged sustainably, and a third of online shoppers in the UK reported canceling purchases for lack of eco-friendly shipping and handling options.

Fortunately, modern biodegradable packaging materials are plentiful — and more advanced methods of ditching traditional plastics are already in advanced stages of development.

New bio-based plastics derived from corn starch, sugarcane and cellulose can be recycled, reused or discarded with a minimal carbon footprint. Researchers in Poland have developed a material derived from potato starch that’s fully biodegradable in freshwater, salt water, soil and home composting machines. More research in Japan has found a bacteria capable of breaking down plastics — really, the sky’s the limit here.

Even a simple switch from traditional bubble wrap to honeycomb paper cushioning allows companies to minimize their environmental footprint while demonstrating a shared interest in sustainability with their customers. One study even reports 73% of Gen Z consumers (now the demographic with the largest share of purchasing power) are willing to spend more on eco-friendly products and shipping alternatives.

Electric & Autonomous Vehicles

The jury’s still out on whether current electric and autonomous vehicles are a net positive for the environment (yet), as the computing hardware and infrastructure changes required for widespread adoption aren’t nearly as simple as “Electricity>Gasoline” (in fact, the carbon footprint formula for self-driving vehicles is really complicated).

However, the promise of self-driving, self-route-optimizing vehicles running on clean fuel in the near future has far too much momentum to ignore. Advancements in battery tech and charging infrastructure have already paved the way for electric trucks to haul freight across borders, introduced electric ships to short-haul and inland waterway transport and kept industry experts anxiously awaiting the projected $85 billion delivery drone market to engulf the shipping landscape by 2030.

This anticipated large-scale adoption of AI-guided electric drones may run the risk of sounding too ambitious to truly be practical or cost-effective — until you factor in unyielding consumer demand for fast sustainable delivery, and equally urgent C-suite demand for halving their respective companies’ annual shipping costs.

Despite naysayers and those who frankly find the concept of automated drones a bit creepy (which is valid), shippers have never been so close to a cost-effective, environmentally friendly solution to the last-mile problem.

Efficient Shipping with First Call

The future of sustainable shipping improvements is vast and promising. If you’ve made sustainability goals for your business this year, you’re right on trend — and your new favorite 3PL provider (that’s us) is the perfect partner to help you achieve those goals.

Contact our team here for further details on improving the eco-friendliness of your current storage, delivery and packaging practices.

Simplify your Next Shipment with First Call Logistics

Building and managing cost-efficient supply chains is a full-time job. First Call’s rare combination of in-house assets, expert problem-solving and track record of stellar customer service makes us the 3PL of choice for business partners with a wide range of shipping needs.

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