Authored by Martin Dommerby Kristiansen, Chief Executive Officer at GateHouse Maritime

The disrupted supply chain is undoubtedly frustrating for customers awaiting goods, however, congestion at global container ports is also having a catastrophic effect on the marine environment

Between January 2020 and August 2021, the transit time to ship goods from China to Los Angeles doubled to 62 days. The port at Los Angeles and its neighbour at Long Beach account for 40% of all imported US consumer goods: however, rising demand has left the ports ill-equipped to respond to the 10.6 million Twenty-Foot Equivalent (TEU) shipping containers which moved through the ports in 2021. This situation is not exclusive to the US. In Singapore, the average anchoring time has risen is 23 hours; in Rotterdam, it has risen to 1 day and 22 hours; in Qinhuangdao and Huanghua, anchoring time exceeds three days.

While ports are remedying stockpiles and grapple with reduced workforces caused by the coronavirus pandemic, this will continue to bear a frustrating burden on consumers, trade partners and port authorities. However, the effect of port congestion on our oceanic and atmospheric ecosystems is comparatively catastrophic. According to a report from NTU, emissions at the port in LA doubled during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, while Long Beach faced an increase of almost two thirds. Even worse increases were seen in Singapore, where pollution increased by 123%; more modest increases, exceeding a quarter, were observed in Hamburg.

A prevailing reason for this is the growth of hotelling – a by-product of labour disruptions, poor infrastructural or equipment capacity, or rising demand for imports – where ships held at anchorage or berth continue to consume fuel while waiting for cargo to be loaded or unloaded. There is no option to switch off their engines: container vessels must continue to burn diesel in order to ensure the safety of the vehicle and crew, and – importantly – maintain the temperature and condition of perishable cargo.

Inevitably, the ensuing pollution comes at the expense of marine and human life. In the short term, it is associated with increased rates of heart and lung disease amongst the inhabitants of port cities, increased risk of cancer due to higher levels of particulate emissions, and premature mortality. Additionally, it increases the risk of water pollution and bio-fouling, which endangers marine life. In the not-so-long-term, this could also lead to permanent environmental damage and hamper efforts to cut embodied carbon in the global macro economy.

Shipping the most environmental method of long-distance transportation

However, shipping is by far the most environmentally sustainable mode of travel for our goods. When compared to bulk carriers, trucks emit over ten times the amount of greenhouse gases per mile; with air freight, this increases to 55 times the amount of greenhouse gases per mile. This ratio more than doubles when compared with Very Large

Container Ships (VLCS). However, because 90% of traded goods travel by sea, sea freight accounts for almost 3% of global greenhouse emissions. As a critical, not to mention environmentally strategic, part of our supply chains, improving the logistical efficiency of shipping should therefore be prioritised.

Solving the Supply Chain

The immediate solution is to remove inefficiencies through a more strategic approach to transport. Data, analytics and predictive services are vital: smarter, integrated supply chains shift away from the siloed, inefficient systems which cause, for example, the mis-distribution of shipping containers globally. Between January 2020 and March 2021, this led to 188 ships bearing cargos of empty containers travelling almost 900,000 miles on journeys between Los Angeles and Yokohama. This, it’s needless to say, has neither helped to ease traffic along the coast nor port congestion.

Smart supply chains are nothing new: the idea of environmentally-and-socially-conscious supply chains were talked about at least as far back as 2013. Furthermore, data collected from instrumented ships, containers and ports is already available, though end-users are yet to gain access. This makes things exceptionally difficult for shipping companies and freight forwarders, who have limited knowledge on where blockages are, including their causes, and so can’t easily reroute ships. Offering access to data incorporated into the dashboards that are in regular use would better equip them to plan their supply chains accordingly.

The latest data feeds, e.g., Port Congestion – a service provided by Gatehouse Maritime – provide information regarding the number of ships at anchor at any container port around the globe, in real-time. Freight professionals can save time and uncertainty by accessing continuous updates on the number of vessels at anchor and at berth as well as anchorage waiting times. Using information from all ports along the route as well as the destination port of any shipment provides a powerful planning tool for eliminating negative impacts upon shipments, applying corrective measures and mitigating any contingencies.

Easing port congestion may require a new paradigm, long term

When all is said and done, reducing environmental degradation and the health burdens to coastal communities requires a more rigorous, systematic re-evaluation of how our supply-chains are designed. Sudden influxes of demand are becoming more and more commonplace as a result of rising global populations. At the same time, decarbonisation efforts mean that port authorities will no doubt be pushed to reconfigure their current structures in order to ease or eliminate congestion completely.

Of course, the current state of geopolitics and the apparently one-way traffic of global logistics may suggest the supply chain needs a thorough reorganisation and a new paradigm. For example, onshoring production – cutting trade by increasing domestic production in high-demand industries – is already becoming a strong area of research, it should be cautiously assessed, due to its reliance on geopolitical and pre-existing economic factors. In the mid-term, shorter, regionalised value chains offer excellent prospects for cutting the overall mileage of goods while still supporting competitive advantage between countries.

In the meantime, data-driven planning can help shipments to be routed to avoid the worst effects of port congestion, from the degradation of marine and coastal environments to disrupted manufacturing and assembly plants, and the disappointments of broken customer expectations.