Over the past decades, the debate around climate change and maritime pollution within the shipping industry has been mainly shaped around the need to cut down CO2 emissions and turn to cleaner, more sustainable fuels. But one factor that the industry has – perhaps voluntarily – ignored is the role that container pollution is having on marine life and shorelines.

A growing concern worsened by scarce data availability and obsolete regulations, the issue was recently brought to international attention thanks to a report by French non-profit organisation the Surfrider Foundation.

The first-of-its-kind ‘Shipping containers at sea, an unacknowledged drift’ report was compiled between 2014 and 2019 in a bid to profile the phenomenon of container loss at sea and its negative environmental impact.

Accounting for 80% of international transport of goods, container traffic is a key driver of globalisation and crucial in supporting a country’s trade relations. Yet as demand grows and soaring temperatures increase the likelihood of storms, the risk of losing containers at sea subsequently increases, making it a huge, unresolved problem that, according to the report, the industry and national governments are failing to address.

As Surfrider Foundation legal, lobbying and campaign manager Antidia Citores explains, data gathered on the matter – or, in some cases, the lack thereof – is more than alarming, and requires urgent intervention from international agencies, governments and supply chain stakeholders.

Adele Berti: Can you run me through the major findings of the report?

Antidia Citores: The reason why we took on this subject five years ago is that we had generic figures of about 10,000 containers being lost at sea every year, and we realised that these were the only figures available. They were very vague and didn’t include information on specific situations in which containers were lost by accident.

So, we called offices from each country in the world and asked whether they had any figures on the matter. However, some countries were not inclined to release this information and told us they do not compile reports on containers lost by accident at sea.

We found out that there is a big lack of transparency when it comes to this kind of accident and no harmonisation regarding the way data is collected on this phenomenon. What surprised us is that some declarations were lacking key information on where containers were lost, what was inside and how many had actually been lost.

As a result, our main conclusion is that we need harmonisation about the declaration of loss and more transparency on what is lost and what is indicated in the declaration to the supplier.

AB: Were you able to quantify the number of containers lost at sea?

AC: We found more than 16,000 containers have been lost between 1994 and today. These were the only ones that can be verified and that we know of, though they are not quite close to reality.

We can estimate that about 1,000 containers were lost at sea every year by accident. Depending on the year, we can only have an average of losses; since the beginning of this year, for example, we have already lost 600 containers.

The numbers also depend on the weather; sometimes we have very windy winters and storms, which are likely to provoke more loss of containers. In some cases, we have data of 300 containers lost at one time.

AB: What are the main damages caused by losing containers at sea?

AC: When it comes to containers, there is risk for every sort of contamination; they can contain acid, alcohol, manufactured products but also dangerous products.

In some cases, they had sunk, so we didn’t have any information about the contents, while in other instances, they opened when at sea or floated to the shorelines.

Some of the contents were particularly harmful and contained a lot of chemical products. We once found a very powerful detergent on the Cornwall shorelines, as well as two different types of acid or big barriers of acid near the Atlantic.

AB: What’s the standard procedure to report container loss?

AC: When a container carrying dangerous substances is lost, ship owners have to signal it to the administration of the seas where they are lost. There is an obligation to signal the loss of it, but nothing else is required after that.

If the contents of the container is not harmful or it doesn’t carry dangerous substances, there is no obligation to report it. We’ve found that on some occasions, the team on the boat said they only realised containers had been lost at sea once they had reached the port and had to make the inventory.

AB: So there is no international regulation on how to report it?

AC: No. France proposed to flag it up at an IMO meeting on safety, lobby for stricter rules on container loss submissions within the EU, and harmonise the procedure to declare loss of containers.

However, Germany blocked the submission so the proposal never made it to the IMO meeting. We don’t know if other countries will ever take the gamble to do it but at this stage, there is nothing, in fact, that obliges seafarers to declare it.

AB: Why is it difficult to enforce effective regulation on this? Should it start at a regional level or should the IMO take the initiative?

AC: In my opinion, everything could be dealt with by the IMO but we know that it would take a long time. We are currently waiting for the new EU mandate and Commission to be elected to know if they are open to new legislation dedicated to shipping.

We should also have measures for the prevention of container loss, as well as norms on how to declare the weight of the containers, how they’re controlled and piled. Sometimes, the container is very old and its lock doesn’t work well, which is another cause for loss of containers.

AB: Why has nothing been done yet?

AC: The only rules currently available at an international level are from 1977. Although container ships have evolved over the past decades, these rules have not evolved along with them.

We know that 80% of products sold in the market are sent through container shipping. If you try and change the way container ships are handled, you will subsequently change everything else, affecting every part of the industry that ships products around the world.

The reason why member states are not that enthusiastic towards imposing stricter, binding measures is that they will affect the whole of their economies. Exercising more transparency and control on containers would take a lot of time at the harbour because if you have to control the inside of every container and declare it, it would be a long process and we know that time is money that ship owners can’t afford to lose.

Another obstacle is tied to the fact that the IMO is a very special type of organisation that, contrary to other United Nations agencies, is quite secretive. It is very hard for the public to access the IMO’s reports and plenaries and understand how it works.

AB: It has been five years since you started your research. What will the situation look like in another five years?

AC: My feeling is that figures will increase because traffic is increasing. This rise in traffic will lead to an increase in lost containers. Fortunately, we now have a better insight about the loss of containers compared to when we started. Back then, we only had a few figures from 1994 but our investigation can be more complete now.

Having said that, there is a set of norms that were approved at the International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in Connection with the Carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea but they have not been put into force yet.

We are still waiting for approval from six more countries but in the meantime, we continue to be affected by the chemical pollution this convention is bidding to eliminate, and we won’t have enough money and instruments to pursue change.