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The Hidden Price of Shipping

Humes is a journalist and author. His latest book is Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.

Our daily reliance on it—and growing expectation of instantaneity—has a pollution cost that the world is not accounting for

Our buy-it-now, same-day delivery economy is a logistical wonder, a triumph of consumer convenience. It allows us to embed ever more fantastic amounts of transportation within our products and our daily lives—millions of miles to support the average American household each day.

This capacity to transport a smartphone, a medicine or a tube of toothpaste from a factory in Shanghai to a doorstep in Duluth—and to do so billions of times a day, quickly and reliably—may well be humanity’s most towering achievement. The real miracle is that the globalization of everything across vast distances (97 percent of our clothes, 98 percent of our shoes, two-thirds of our furniture, toys, consumer electronics and on and on) has driven prices down—at the cash register, at least. And now we’re even delivering the purchases one at a time on the same day we click on “buy” online.

But there’s a hidden price tag behind these logistical miracles: environmental devastation for which no one takes ownership, and traffic congestion we can no longer afford to fix.

On the far side of the consumer economy, some 6,000 container ships now carry the lion’s share of our products—120 million container-loads worldwide last year, worth about $4 trillion. These ships are prodigious consumers of the cheap and dirty petroleum product known as bunker fuel, up to 1,800 times more polluting than the diesel used in big rigs. The megaships consume 200 to 400 tons of bunker fuel a day.

One of these ships can spew more sulfur and nitrogen oxides than 500,000 big-rig trucks or 7.5 million passenger cars. These pollutants are the precursors of smog and particulate pollution, and a contributor to the ocean acidification that threatens fisheries and coral reefs. It only takes 160 of the 6,000 container ships in service today to pump out the same amount of these pollutants as all the cars in the world. That’s the huge and terrible cost of our hunger for outsourced products.

The cargo fleet also produces two to three percent of global carbon emissions. If it were a country, the fleet’s carbon footprint would be greater than Germany’s, the world’s fourth-largest economy.

The kicker: Because most of these emissions occur in international waters, they don’t “count” toward any one nation’s pollution footprint. This damage is, for accounting purposes, off the books.

On the other end of the consumer economy, we have the newest force adding trips and miles to the footprint of daily life: the age of e-commerce. How convenient and wonderful this new instantaneity appears to be for consumers. Yet how terribly inefficient it is for the transportation system that must bear it all. A truckload of goods once delivered to a single retail location now must be delivered one piece at a time to hundreds of separate home addresses, creating several orders of magnitude more trips and pollution to deliver the same number of goods. All this comes at a time when the nation lacks the will and resources to deal with traffic and decaying roads and bridges. Once again, these costs are not reflected in the price-tag. Indeed, free shipping of single items has helped create the mess with an incentive for consumers to be inefficient and wasteful.

Technology may someday deliver a solution. Advances in 3D-printing may lead to an economy based on “virtual shipping.” But long before then, we need to have a national discussion about how we price, source and ship our products. Our addiction to the convenience of hyper-transportation is enabled only because the cost to the environment, food chain and our infrastructure is not reflected in the bill at checkout time.

Sooner or later, someone—consumers, manufacturers, shippers or, if we do nothing, our kids and grandkids—must pay that freight.

Humes is a journalist and author. His latest book is Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.

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