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Black Friday marks the start of another holiday shopping season that’s already surging, as Walmart and other big box stores host “star-studded online shopping events.” This frenzied shopping is also causing a frenzy at ports — especially at the Port of Los Angeles, where a historic logjam of cargo ships 150 miles long are waiting to offload their goods. This increased port activity is also causing increased levels of pollution, in an area that already has the worst air quality in the nation. And, like many other ports across the U.S., the Port of LA is adjacent to Black and brown communities, where people breathe in more pollution and have higher rates of asthma, cancer and premature death than their white community neighbors.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There are technologies ready today that can keep cargo ship engines running on clean electricity or other clean fuels, and fuel all of the forklifts and other machinery with clean, renewable electricity too.

Today, battery-powered electric ferries are cleanly and quietly shuttling tourists to and from the Arctic, moving goods between Norwegian fjords and traversing the Baltic Sea. For larger vessels like container ships, hydrogen-based fuels could enable ships to cross oceans or stay docked without releasing any emissions, protecting the air, water, people and climate. But to realize these clean technologies, there needs to be better awareness about port pollution, more investment in scaling port electrification solutions and aggressive, science-based policy targets for how fast ports and cargo ships can clean up their act.

Large Cargo Ship / Getty Images

Here is what you can do to help:

First, read up on the impacts of port pollution, especially in Black and brown communities. For example, each additional vessel in a port over a year leads to 2.9 hospital visits per thousand nearby Black residents, compared to only 1.0 per thousand for whites. Share this info around your Thanksgiving table or with your friends and let them know although shipping is causing an environmental and public health crisis today, it doesn’t have to tomorrow.

Second, support policymakers who are stepping out in front of cleaning up cargo ships and ports. The Los Angeles City Council, for example, just passed a resolution calling for a transition to 100% zero-emissions shipping at the Port of Los Angeles by 2030. At the federal level, President Biden’s Build Back Better plan targets investment in disadvantaged communities to address long-standing environmental injustice, and directs $3.5 billion in grant funding to reduce pollution at ports. This plan must still pass the Senate in order to become law, however.

Lastly, support companies that are doing their part to help clean up their cargo ships and supply chains. Amazon, Ikea, Unilever and other big companies have committed to zero-emissions shipping by 2040, and you can help hold them accountable for reaching this target by choosing where you spend your own holiday shopping.

If done correctly, we can nearly eliminate air pollution caused by ports and still get our deliveries on time, helping create jobs and address climate change at the same time. But we need to start today.


Cristal Castro and Ian Meas are students at California State University – Long Beach and members of the environmental science and policy club that seeks to address environmental inequities.