Shipping containers at sea, an unacknowledged drift


Since their invention in 1956, container vessels have become a symbol of globalization and commercial trade. Maritime transportation currently facilitates 90% of global merchandise flow. As demand for service continues to increase, ship constructions are reaching colossal sizes to maintain supply. This new era of giantism has, however, created a new problem for the maritime industry and for the ocean, that of drifting shipping containers. As citizens are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental threats caused by lost containers, the demand for preventative action is growing stronger. Of the eight ocean issues presented in our Voice For The Ocean public consultation, improved maritime transport regulations ranked among the top three that citizens expressed as a main priority.

More shipping containers, more risks

In 2016, more than 130 million shipping containers traveled around the globe. The recent rise in maritime activity requires the production of ships with cargo capacities ten times greater than what was possible in years past. In addition, with the increased pressure of heavier freight and more frequent use, these ships are experiencing premature wear and regularly subjected to overloaded cargo that fails to comply with ISO standards. A study conducted between 1996 and 2000 in IMO member countries revealed that 9% of inspected containers presented structural deficiencies. These are all errors which can lead to cargo imbalance. Human error also comes into play. Loading personnel can become inundated with excess job tasks, resulting in less time for quality control at the loading quays and inadequate vigilance of container connections on board. This process of securing cargo containers to the ship is extremely important to avoid risk of shifting during travel and loss of containers at sea under rough weather conditions.

A significant threat to marine environment

Each lost container that enters the marine environment should be treated as potential pollution. The weight of the container alone can crush aquatic habitats and species. It can also become an artificial reef which can increase the proliferation of invasive species. Anti-corrosive (zinc powder) coatings are also harmful to marine environments. Transported materials and substances also represent possible threats. In a latest example, on March 12, 2019, the sinking of Grande America, a container vessel that caught fire and sank off the Northern French coast, was reportedly carrying 720 tonnes of Hydrochloric Acid and 25 tons of Fungicide when the incident occurred.

Surfrider Foundation Europe in action

Since 2014, Surfrider Foundation Europe has been conducting studies on shipping container loss in order to identify the source of the problem and the extent of its environmental impacts. This comprehensive study is among the first of its kind to expose the faults and shortcomings of a regulatory system that currently does not require formalized or mandatory container loss claims. Surfrider Europe supports the creation of a mandatory, transparent reporting system to facilitate more efficient traceability and visibility of containers during transport and also aide in recovery missions when necessary. It is also vital to clarify the legal status of lost containers in order to establish responsibility of the parties involved. Finally, prevent losses and increasing accidents with stronger and more extensive safety measures on board vessels and at quay. Many relevant actions such as banishment of nonstandard cargo, imposed limits to deck transportation, and implementation of random cargo inspections can also be adopted. Surfrider Europe’s mission is to reveal the urgent necessity for revised maritime transport regulations to prevent lost shipping containers and more effectively respond when accidents happen. This marine pollution must be acknowledged in order to penalize negligence and protect our precious ocean environments from growing maritime threats.

Containers report by Surfrider Europe

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