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Thousands of Shipping Containers Carrying Millions in Cargo Lost in Sea Annually

shipping containers lost in sea
More than 3,000 shipping containers were lost at sea just during the year 2020. Credit: BrsJvnvc/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Shipping containers which topple off of the open decks of ships and are lost in the sea, posing a major safety and environmental threat, according to a recent report analyzing trends in shipping by the World Shipping Council.

The report , released in 2020, showed that in the most recent period between 2017 and 2019, an average of 779 shipping containers were lost at sea annually.

Lost shipping containers cost merchants millions

it is clear that 2020 was a stand-out year in many ways, with the emergence of the novel coronavirus impacting almost every aspect of life across the globe. Unfortunately, it also meant record-breaking figures as far as the amount of shipping containers lost at sea is concerned.

However, such numbers have been high for years, with the World Shipping Council reckoning that an average of 1,382 containers sink into the abyss of the sea annually. This is a disaster for the shipping industry, with lost containers meaning higher costs, potentially dangerous working conditions for ship workers, and environmental concerns.

Shipping container accidents made news worldwide after the “ONE Apus” ship fiasco, wherein the vessel sailing to Kobe, Japan, met gale-force winds in the Pacific and lost a huge number of containers. The 364-meter (1194 foot) ship went through very rough weather which culminated in around 1,800 containers which were being brought to Japan falling off its decks.

Images from the incident went viral, showing the containers strewn across the ship and severely damaged. The most recent incident to which shipping experts can compare the scale of this accident was in 2013, when the “MOL Comfort” split into two and sank with more than 4,000 containers on board.

Why do containers sink?

Bad weather conditions and the waves they cause are the main reason for lost shipping containers. Although ships and their crew try their best to secure containers to the boat — and there are new technologies constantly being developed to improve this process — this is not a fail-safe solution.

Captains and new forecasting technology also work to steer the ship along the safest route, but sometimes bad weather is unavoidable. This is particularly the case since there are strict dates and times during which ships must arrive at their destination, meaning that there is little margin for diverting the ship in order to avoid bad weather.

However, if winds and waves get to a certain level of strength, there is almost nothing the crew can do to fully prevent cargo from falling off the ship.

Misdeclaration of weight, improper packing of cargo, improper stowage, twist locks issues or a lack of maintenance of the containers are other risk factors which can cause containers to be lost at sea.

Although many believe shipping containers can float, this is not accurate, as most of them are not watertight. Some may last on the surface of the ocean for longer than others, and there are pictures and videos of containers floating up to 15 months after they have been lost at sea. However, the majority will sink, leading to a serious environmental hazard, particularly if the cargo falls into the category of “dangerous goods” as defined by the International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG).

The impact of the coronavirus

Recent figures show that in 2020 alone, more than 3,000 shipping containers have been lost at sea.

It seems that one reason for the huge spike in the amount of containers lost at sea that the world is currently experiencing is the coronavirus pandemic. On a basic level, the pandemic has encouraged more people to shop from the comfort of their homes in order to minimize risks to their health, which has sharply increased the demand for timely shipping.

The amount of urgency and tight deadlines associated with e-commerce shipping have meant an increase in accidents aboard cargo ships. However, the record number of shipping containers lost at sea in 2020 is also owed to a host of other factors.

Weather is becoming more unpredictable as scientists warn of the effect of global warming, making it harder for ships to choose better routes. Ship sizes are also increasing as the industry strives for efficiency, meaning that boxes of cargo are stacked higher and higher — making it more likely that they topple when other risk factors are at play.

Since containers are being stacked high, the ships are becoming even more top-heavy, meaning that in bad weather they are likely to be shuffled and jolted around, making it inevitable that they will fall off their vessels.

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