Oceangoing vessels

container-shipThe amount of air pollution produced by ocean-going vessels is staggering. A single cargo ship can produce as much air pollution as 350,000 cars in an hour. These large, ocean-going ships operate on diesel engines the size of a single-family home, and most burn “bunker” fuel, which is cheap, but much more polluting than fuels used to power vehicles. Bunker fuel contains high concentrations of toxic compounds banned from use in most other industrial and consumer applications.

As global trade increases, global shipping is expected to double within the next decade, bringing shipping pollution to new highs. EPA estimates that emissions from ocean-going vessels will double their contributions to the national mobile source inventory of sulfur oxides and quadruple particulate matter -- both of which are major health threats. Increased ship emissions not only degrade air quality, but also contribute to global warming, ocean acidification and eutrophication of waterways.

Friends of the Earth is working at the local and state levels to strengthen port regulations to protect local communities and waters, to enact health-protective national and international shipping standards, and to achieve global warming reductions from ocean-going vessels in order to attain pollution reductions worldwide.

oiled-bird-cleanInternational Maritime Organization

Friends of the Earth through our federation, Friends of the Earth International, has been working tirelessly to pressure the International Maritime Organization to strengthen international ship emissions standards. The IMO is the U.N. specialized agency that regulates international shipping, and it is the central forum for addressing the environmental problems associated with ocean-going vessels. The IMO seeks to harmonize the regulatory landscape that governs shipping, and with much of the world’s oceans extending beyond the territorial waters and even exclusive economic zones of States, the regulation of shipping on the high seas falls squarely within the jurisdiction of the IMO. Friends of the Earth has a multi-faceted campaign to achieve key protections from shipping pollution at the IMO, where we seek robust, mandatory measures to prevent accidental spills; stringent requirements to minimize pollution from routine discharges of oil, chemicals, wastewater and garbage; and air quality controls to reduce air pollution, including the discharge of black carbon, from vessels.

Image credit: Linda Schonknect, Marine Photobank

Arctic shipping

Pacific Northwest shipping

No-discharge zone


The U.S. Clean Water Act No-Discharge Zone program establishes ocean and freshwater aquatic areas where ships and  boats are not allowed to discharge vessel sewage of any kind. The purpose of creating these zones is to protect human health, sensitive habitats, and aquatic organisms, birds and other animals utilizing the water from adverse impacts of vessel sewage. Within NDZ boundaries, vessel operators are required to  store sewage on board their ships for disposal at onshore pump-out facilities or outside the zone's boundaries. Most no-discharge zones are a result of states applying to the U.S. EPA to designate specific water bodies as such.

Image credit: ©Fred Felleman

Documents submitted to the International Maritime Organization

Friends of the Earth has been engaged since 2009 in deliberations surrounding the development of mandatory rules for Arctic and Antarctic shipping known as the Polar Code. Friends of the Earth participates in the proceedings at the International Maritime Organization in London, UK, through an observer seat held by Friends of the Earth International. At the IMO, we are an outspoken advocate for strong polar shipping regulations, focusing primarily on the Arctic region. (Our partner, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, provides expertise on issues concerning the Antarctic.) During IMO meetings, Friends of the Earth makes oral statements, gives sidebar presentations and, generally, works to build support for our environmental positions among IMO member nations, intergovernmental organizations (e.g. European Commission) and industry NGOs.

An important part of these efforts includes submitting documents to the IMO that make the case for why we need particular environmental and safety provisions in the Polar Code. Friends of the Earth, in collaboration with other environmental NGO partners, has produced and submitted over 30 documents, found below, to the IMO on topics relevant to the Code.

Maritime Safety Committee 95 (June 3-12, 2015): Incidents

Maritime Safety Committee 94 (November 17-21, 2014): Seabirds and Category C Ships

Maritime Safety Committee 86 (May 27-June 5, 2009): Mandatory Polar Code


Marine Environment Protection Committee 69 (April 18-22, 2016): Heavy Fuel Oil and Invasive species

Marine Environment Protection Committee 68 (May 11-15, 2015): Environmental protection

Marine Environment Protection Committee 67 (October 13-17, 2014): Environmental protection

Marine Environment Protection Committee 65 (May 13-17, 2013): Incineration

Marine Environment Protection Committee 62 (July 11-15, 2011): Black carbon and Whales

Marine Environment Protection Committee 59 (July 13-17, 2009): Mandatory Polar Code


Safety of Navigation Sub-Committee 57 (June 6-10, 2011): Whales 1 and Whales 2


Ship Design and Construction Sub-Committee 1 (Jan. 20-24, 2014): ApplicationReception facilities


Design and Equipment Sub-Committee 57 (March 18-22, 2013): Heavy Fuel OilGarbage & Invasive speciesWastewaterBlack Carbon and Oil Pollution

Design and Equipment Sub-Committee 56 (February 13-17, 2012): Various ProvisionsHeavy Fuel Oil 1Heavy Fuel Oil 2, and Incineration

Design and Equipment Sub-Committee 55 (March 21-25, 2011): Boundaries 1Boundaries 2Black CarbonMonitoringWhalesPackages & ContainersWastewater, and Definition of Pollutant

Design and Equipment Sub-Committee 54 (October 25-29, 2010): MARPOL and Non-MARPOL

Design and Equipment Sub-Committee 53 (February 22-26, 2010): Overview

Latest in Oceans and Forests

view all »

Stop Trump

Keep lobbyists out!

Tell Donald Trump not to appoint corporate cronies in our government.

Follow us on Twitter

Like us on Facebook