Are Shipping Companies Using Cheat Devices?

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The global shipping industry may be cheating the environment by taking advantage of a loophole.

  • To dodge new standards for sulphur emissions, shipping companies are reportedly using emissions diverters.
  • Called an open-loop scrubber, the apparatus diverts sulphur emissions from the air to the ocean.
  • The huge amount of pollution released into our waters can be devastating to marine life as well as humans.

As reported by the Independent, shipping companies are outfitting their heavy oil, fuel-powered boats with what are called open-loop scrubbers. Instead of releasing sulphur as fumes into the air, the scrubbers divert the sulphur into the sea.

By using these scrubbers, shipping companies will meet the new environmental air standards set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which go into effect January 1.  Shipping companies have shelled out more than $12 billion to install these “cheat devices.”  Ironically, the IMO states “its role is to create a level playing-field so that ship operators cannot address their financial issues by simply cutting corners and compromising on safety, security and environmental performance.”

Cruise ships are one of the most flagrant offenders dumping waste into the oceans. (Photo: Getty Images)

To give an idea of the potential environmental impact, the Independent notes ships using open-loop scrubbers emit about 45 tons of acidic waste water filled with carcinogens and heavy metals for every ton of oil burned. And, by the time the legislation goes into effect, an estimated 4,000 ships will be using open-loop scrubbers — up from less than a hundred in 2013.

Not only is it dangerous to spew pollution for humans, it’s crippling for marine life. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia has lost half its coral cover, seen deadly starfish outbreaks, and has experienced terrible coral bleaching. This damage has been attributed to global warming, which may be exacerbated by pollution.

In addition to cargo ships, cruise ships are also responsible for air pollution. In a New York Times article, Bryan Comer, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit research group, said that even the most efficient cruise ships emit three to four times more carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than a jet.

Though IMO member states now allow open-loop scrubbers to sidestep sulphur caps, some regional ports are fighting back. For example, the Port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, coastal regions in China, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the U.S. have banned scrubber discharge.


Shipping companies seem to be prioritizing profits at the expense of the environment. The issue is complex and will require international coordination in order to solve. Consumers should be aware that international trade may have global consequences that no one anticipated.

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