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Sustainability lessons from US logistics sector

28 March, 2013

From major retailers to trucking and shipping, US companies are making major strides in emissions control, reduced energy consumption and cost savings.

"American companies and ports are working together to reduce the environmental footprint of the transportation sector," Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) Executive Director Curtis Foltz said.

"From building the first ever LNG-powered ships and electric-powered rubber-tyred gantry cranes to improving truck move efficiency, reducing idling and employing cleaner burning fuels, (US companies are providing) far-reaching examples of environmental sustainability."

James Jack, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Transportation (CRT), said "greening" the supply chain was now a common theme.

"It’s no secret that shippers have begun to factor environmental performance into their supply chain decisions," Jack said.

"It goes without saying that ports like the GPA have also responded to this challenge. As we have seen, they have implemented a variety of different ways to address air and water quality challenges."

TOTE President and CEO Anthony Chiarello said the shipping company has two 3,100-TEU container ships under construction to serve their East Coast to Puerto Rico trade. They will be the first containerships designed specifically to burn LNG fuel, Chiarello said.

The company is also in the process of converting existing vessels on its Pacific Northwest to Anchorage, Alaska, route from heavy oil bunker fuel to liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Chiarello said point-to-point routes are the logical first step in LNG container ships because refueling stations are easier to establish. He added that while LNG offers approximately 40 per cent cost savings, the major impetus was environmental stewardship.

"When you can cut your sulphur burn by 99 per cent versus what it would be with bunker fuel, for us, it becomes a classic no-brainer," he said.

Foltz said the GPA is also considering a move to LNG-fuelled vehicles.

"We operate 200-plus marine tractors every day inside the port complex," Foltz said.

"I would suspect in the next two to four years, the vast majority of those will be operating on an alternative fuel other than diesel. We believe that’s going to be either LNG or CNG (compressed natural gas)."

Other major trends in supply chain sustainability gaining prominence in the US include companies working with their contracted trucking companies to have them shift to newer, cleaner running trucks, as well as a greater emphasis on two-way truck moves.

Traditionally, trucks have carried loaded containers to distribution centres and empties back to the port. Now, however, retailers are working to fill those return boxes in two ways.

The first is by partnering with nearby companies that need to move goods for export. Another method is to bundle wood and cardboard packaging, which is then shipped overseas to be recycled.

Rick Gabrielson, director of international transportation for Target, said the retailer instituted a "no-idle" policy for trucks at its distribution centres.

Working closely with carriers, vendors and other partners, Target is transitioning to greener trucks, including test programs for hydrogen- and electric-powered vehicles.

"Sustainability is really integrated throughout our business — from how we build our stores to our distribution centers and supply chain operations," Gabrielson said.

He noted that a number of shippers are beginning to convert a portion of their truck fleets to natural gas, and Target is also moving in that direction. He said cross-country routes are not yet possible because filling stations are sparse.

"Where you have one-day delivery for stores in the range of 50 to 100 miles, we’re beginning to see more and more interest in it and more organisations taking a look at it," Gabrielson said.

"Target is no different."

GPA Board Chairman Robert Jepson said emission controls will become increasingly important in the transportation industry.

"We expect to see almost a 75 per cent increase in freight tonnes moved between 2000 and 2020," Jepson said.

"This phenomenal growth calls for proactive strategies, and the Georgia Ports Authority will remain at the forefront of sustainable practices in the maritime industry."

The GPA has voluntarily undertaken a series of initiatives designed to increase the productivity and capacity of the port in environmentally responsible ways. Through efforts such as electrifying ship-to-shore cranes and refrigerated container racks, the Port of Savannah avoids the use of more than 5.8 million gallons of diesel annually.

During the 2012 financial year the GPA developed an electric-powered rubber-tyred gantry crane (ERTG) system, the first of its kind in North America. The ERTGs reduce diesel consumption by up to 95 per cent per crane.

The GPA is also cutting emissions with the use of refrigerated container racks. Its current 64 racks power more than 1,500 containers at a time.

Supporting poultry and other chilled produce exports, each rack avoids the use of 54,000 gallons of diesel annually. Twenty more racks will be added this financial year.

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