The Costs of Cleaning up the Shipping Industry

By: Chitanya Ajjarapu

The largest contributor to ocean pollution also has some of the largest costs to clean up

Traveling over water was once one of the cleanest ways to ship goods and get from one place to another. The wind in the sails and the current of the water fueled the ships. After the boom of manufacturing and trade during the industrial revolution, James Watt developed the steam engine which turned the shipping industry on its head, making it much more efficient but dirtier. The entire revolution was powered by fossil fuels, especially coal, and the steam engine was no exception. Now with our increased knowledge and responsibility for the damage fossil fuels are doing to the environment, we have made several attempts at reducing our carbon emissions and focusing on renewable energy for our consumption. The Paris Climate Accords were one of the first global deals to aim to reduce our carbon emissions as a planet. On that note, Ben Sutherland of The Economist claims that experts suggest shipping accounts for 3% of all greenhouse gases. If the industry say, were a country, it would be the sixth largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions, behind only the manufacturing giants such as the U.S. and China. Global efforts to reduce the effect of the shipping industry have been priorities for many activists and regulations are now in place requiring ships to be “zero-emission.” There have been many proposed solutions, but each has a cost to shippers themselves.

One such solution is to let history come in a full circle: return to relying on wind power and sails adapted to modern technologies. The global shipping firm Maersk is planning to install a Norsepower rotor sail to one of their oil tankers. Standing alone, this source of power is too weak to power the entire vessel by itself, so it needs to be supplemented by fuel, but the implementation of these rotors reduces both the fuel costs and emissions. Maersk estimates that the rotors will save them 7-10% in fuel costs, so it seems like a potential progressive step to mandate them across all shipping companies. A German company called SkySails has experimented with using kite-like parachutes to propel the ships and reduce costs. These two successes, relative to the entire romantic environmental pursuit of reviving sails nearly 200 years after they’ve been rendered obsolete, are pretty isolated. Most modern engineering reinventions of this wheel have been failures or high cost ventures. Furthermore, implementing the working marvel spinning rotor sails is easy for the $200 billion valued Maersk, but for smaller shipping companies that are less profitable, a universal mandate to implement these would inflict heavy costs that may not offset their savings in fuel for a very long time, if they can afford it at all.

Similar to the current situation of wind power, another proposed solution is using any kind of alternative fuel source to reduce the reliance on the most common fuel used in shipping: noxious bunker fuel. Bunker fuel is made from the dregs of the petroleum refining process, and is so toxic it is a solid at room temperature, needing to be heated up before use. It is heavy in sulfur, an element that causes respiratory problems and an increasing number of deaths, according to experts. However, a controversy lies in the elemental nature of sulfur itself. When in the atmosphere, sulfur can reflect radiation from the sun, theoretically being able to cool the planet and reverse global warming. There has been a mandate from the International Maritime Organization that requires a reduction of sulfur in fuel from 3.5% to .5%; which was driven by the amount of premature deaths that arise from high sulfur emissions. This mandate requires all shipping firms to reach this reduction by 2020. The problem with this deadline is that there are too few sophisticated oil distillers that can refine fuel to the required amount of sulfur. To meet the needs of the global shipping industry, estimates suggest that refineries will need to build 25 plants that will only be ready to distill oil in 2022. This means that by 2020, the supply of legal fuel would be heavily restricted, raising the price of crude oil by an estimated 30%. Once again, the costs of higher fuel prices are much harder to be absorbed by smaller shipping firms with less profit. The potential reverberations also will be felt throughout the world, with estimates suggesting a 2-4% drop in global GDP and a sharp increase in consumer prices due to decreased availability to trade, including a possible gas price increase of $6 per gallon.

The final big solution towards the industry involves raising the efficiency of the fuel through exterior means, i.e getting more nautical miles per gallon of fuel used. The way to do this is to reduce the drag and weight on the ship allowing the ship to get to where it needs to go faster and with less fuel emissions. Fouling, a natural biotic process that involves barnacles and other marine life latching onto the ship is what causes this drag. Fouling is a big problem that affects the US Navy, and they conducted a study that found out that fouling accounts for 15% of their propulsion fuel, or $20 million worth of fuel. Proposed solutions involve preventing the fouling from occurring and periodically removing the fouling with brushes or a water blaster. The way it is prevented is spraying the ship with a toxic paint or layer that prevents the fouling from occurring, but it has proven to only hinder the growth. As the toxicity wears off, the fouling ends up happening naturally requiring expensive touch ups and paint jobs to fix the effects. The cleaning is a second option, and has opened up a fairly profitable industry in Norway that blasts the ships with high pressure jets through drones, cleaning up the ships. The process, as expected, is very expensive and can cost between $17,000 to $20,000 per ship. The gains from fuel efficiency theoretically more than balance out the costs of anti-fouling, so the problem once again lies with smaller firms. Large shipping firms can afford the initial investment and bask in the increased revenues and profits that follow, but can a small firm take the $20,000 hit per ship? That will be the big question moving forward.

Works Cited:

Aggidis, G. (2017, March 21). Spinning sail technology is poised to bring back wind-powered ships. The Conversation. Retrieved from

Carrington, D. (2017, March 14). Spinning sail’ rebooted to cut fuel and make ocean tankers greener. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Gallucci, M. (2017, November 16). The shipping industry needs to clean up its act. Heres where it can start. grist. Retrieved from

Gallucci, M. (2017, November 6). The shipping industry needs to deliver cleaner cargo ships, or we’re all sunk. grist. Retrieved from

Rathi, A. (2017, August 29). One of the world’s most polluting industries has two years to clean up—and it’s woefully unprepared. Quartz. Retrieved from

Smith, O. (2018, March 12). Norsepower: Why European Ships Are Switching Back To Sails. Forbes. Retrieved from

Verleger, P.K. (2018, April 18). Limit Sulfur in Shipping Fuel, But Not So Fast. Bloomberg. Retrieved from