BlogSupply Chain Sustainability/Circular EconomyMore sustainable freight transportation is feasible.

According to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty—less than $1 per day—went from 1.9 billion in 1990 to around $700 million in 2015. This drop has largely been possible due to the globalization of trade and manufacturing. It is a stunning accomplishment that deserves far more attention. It has not, however, been without severe drawbacks. The coronavirus pandemic has provided one lesson in the drawbacks of globalization, showing that trade and travel links can provide a ready path for disease, as well as for goods. There are other disadvantages to globalization, too.

Global supply chains involve shipping freight over long distances using fuel and other energy resources. Not only is the heavy use of these resources not sustainable in the long-term, but it also causes the release of carbon dioxide and other emissions that are damaging our environment. Sustainable freight transportation must be the backbone of the environmentally responsible supply chains of the future.

Developing Sustainable Freight Transportation

Sustainable energy has potential to change freight transportation.Proposals for sustainable methods of product transportation are diverse. They range from developing existing technologies to radically changing the methods by which goods are currently delivered. There are even serious discussions of airships returning to the skies as heavy freight haulers. Given the scale of freight shipping today and the need for sweeping changes, no proposal for sustainable freight transportation is being dismissed out of hand. Realistically, however, eco-friendly freight transportation will be enabled in the near future by converting existing freight platforms from fossil fuel to electricity. Three electric freight transportation methods are already in use:

  • Electric Trucks: Electric semi-trucks from companies including Tesla, Volvo, and Peterbilt are already in limited use in fixed routes near major ports and urban areas. Each of these companies is scheduled to start full production in 2021. 
  • Electric Ships: The world’s first electric cargo container ship launched from China in 2017. The Norwegian-built Yara Birkeland launches later in 2020 and is expected to enter full operation in 2022. It will combine an all-electric platform with autonomous operations as it sails short near-to-shore routes in Scandinavia. 
  • Electric Drones: Local area delivery by drone instead of passenger truck has been in discussion and development for several years. In 2020, as a direct result of the coronavirus, this became a reality with CVS and UPS making no-contact drone delivery of pharmaceuticals to those vulnerable to the coronavirus.

All of these new technologies show a great deal of promise for sustainable freight transportation in the future. Unfortunately, the battery technology to make truly long-range transportation using an all-electric fleet doesn’t yet exist. 

The limited range of electric vehicles means that all-electric freight is by necessity local.

The top-of-line model electric semis from Tesla, for example, are projected to have a range of 500 miles on a single charge, with lower-cost models having a maximum range of 300 miles. That is well short of the range of a diesel semi with a 300-gallon tank, which may hit 2,000 miles before having to fill up. It is also short of the 650-mile range that a trucker can make in a single 11-hour shift before they are required to sleep. 

China’s electric ship has a fixed range of 50 miles (80 km) on a single charge and the Yara Birkeland is similarly limited in range. Air delivery drones have a maximum range of 15 miles (25 km) for a round trip. These limited range numbers mean that all-electric freight is by necessity local. Longer range sustainable freight transportation in the near-term will have to focus on making the most efficient use possible of high-energy-density fuels.

Why Companies Should Focus on Reducing Shipping Weight

Eco-friendly transportation is on its way.Sustainable product transportation for most companies will mean minimizing their fuel expenditures while still using their existing vehicles and current transportation networks. The most feasible way to do this while fulfilling the same number of customer orders is by reducing the weight of the freight transported. This can be done by reducing the weight of product packaging. Unfortunately, this method has several drawbacks:

  • Branding: Product packaging is a major part of a product’s branding. Changing packaging to reduce its weight can create a perception of lower quality, which could damage the brand’s reputation.
  • Packing: Packaging is often already optimized for weight savings. Fuel costs money regardless of emissions and companies often reduce packaging weight as much as possible to save on costs. Further changes to packaging could make it less able to support weight and might force companies to ship smaller pallet loads, ultimately canceling out the benefits of lighter packaging.
  • Damage: Reducing the weight (and thus strength) of product packaging can also cause more products to become damaged during transportation. This makes fuel use less efficient as damaged products are usually returned to the manufacturer.

Packaging redesigns are only an option for a limited number of companies. Far more companies can benefit from reducing the weight of auxiliary equipment, such as shipping pallets, used to transport their products. 

Lightweight plastic pallets make transportation more sustainable.If a product is shipped in North America, the odds are high that it will ship on a 48-by-40-inch Grocery Manufacturers’ Association specification pallet. There are opportunities for weight savings in switching from typical wood GMA pallets to high-quality 48-by-40-inch plastic pallets. Some plastic pallets weigh less than 50 pounds. This is a significant weight savings over wood block pallets, which generally weigh between 60 and 80 pounds depending on moisture content. A trailer carrying products that cube out will be able to carry a much lighter load by switching to plastic shipping platforms. For products that ship by weighing out, using plastic pallets ensures that more of that maximum weight is actual product rather than pallet, which can ultimately reduce the number of shipments needed to fulfill an order. 

A greenhouse gas calculator can help calculate exactly how much fuel could be saved and emissions reduced through the use of plastic pallets. It is also important to note that weight savings are crucial in getting the maximum effectiveness out of electric vehicle batteries. The weight savings provided by plastic pallets will be important for sustainable freight transportation long after all-electric freight becomes more practical.

The iGPS plastic pallet is a long-lasting, reusable, and recyclable shipping pallet that combines outstanding durability with very light weight. Maximize efficiency and start investing in sustainable freight transportation by giving our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, emailing a specialist at [email protected], or visiting our contact page.