container ship

According to a recent survey by the World Shipping Council (WSC), an average of 1,679 containers are lost overboard every year, causing significant economic losses for carriers and their customers, as well as potential hazards for marine life. But are the numbers accurate and, crucially, what is being done to reduce them?

On any given day, there are between five and six million shipping containers on the high seas, transporting everything from Doritos to dishwashers. Extrapolate, and that adds up to approximately 120 million containers packed with cargo traversing the oceans every year, with an estimated value of more than $4 trillion (based on 2013 figures). In fact, shipping containers account for about 90% of the non-bulk cargo transported around the world.

And, given the often severe weather conditions at sea, combined with the possibility of catastrophic events such as groundings or collisions, it’s no surprise that a small proportion of these containers never make it to their final destination. But just how many are going missing and how can we be sure the numbers are true?

The latest figures, explained

Estimates of the number of containers lost per year have ranged wildly over the years, from a couple of hundred to as many as 10,000, but the most recent figures released by the WSC earlier this year, which are now widely accepted as the most accurate, lie somewhere in the middle at 1,679, including catastrophic events.

So how did the researchers arrive at this figure? Essentially, the information came straight from the horse’s mouth: surveys were taken in 2011 (for the years 2008, 2009 and 2010) and in 2014 (for the years 2011, 2012 and 2013) of WSC member companies, which make up 90% of the global liner ship capacity, who were asked to report the number of containers lost overboard. As not all of the industry responded (70% in 2011 and 86% in 2014), the numbers were adjusted upward to provide an estimated loss figure for all carriers, both WSC members and non-members.

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“Both WSC and our members found a number of statements in media stories, presentations, and other publications that referred to numbers of lost containers, which we believed were highly inaccurate,” says WSC vice president Anne Kappel. “We recognized that the single best source of information would be the carriers – our members – so we undertook the surveys to obtain a more accurate and fact-based estimate.

“Individual carriers track their losses, and we knew that somewhere in each of the companies, an accurate count could be found. Our objective was to get this data from the lines themselves and build the analysis from the ‘ground up’.”

One of the key findings of the survey was that the number of lost containers increased by 297% between 2011 and 2014. In the 2011 survey it was found that approximately 350 containers were lost at sea each year from 2008-2010, not counting catastrophic events, with an average annual loss per year of around 675, including catastrophic losses. By the next count, those figures had increased to 733 and 2,683 respectively.

Importantly, the report also noted that the large numbers seen for the years 2011-2013 are largely the result of two rare catastrophic events: the 2013 sinking of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean, which alone resulted in the loss of 4,293 containers, and the 2011 MV Rena grounding off New Zealand, when around 900 containers went overboard.

“Although we do not have the specific causes for each of the reported events, very severe weather appears to be the unquestioned, most significant cause of these events. The other very significant variable is catastrophic loss of an entire ship. These types of casualties are very rare, but such large-scale losses in a single incident can skew the numbers,” Kappel notes.

Negative impacts: economic and ecological

“A recent survey found that, on average, 1,679 containers are lost at sea each year.”

The impacts of what, in reality, is only a tiny proportion of the world’s shipping containers going overboard are twofold, according to Kappell. “There is a very substantial economic loss to carriers and to carriers’ customers when containers are lost at sea,” she notes. “Each container costs a carrier several thousands of dollars, with the cost varying by size and equipment type [and] if the container was packed with cargo, the carrier and the shipper will also have to address the loss of the cargo value.

“Cargo values can vary substantially, from relatively low-value products, like waste paper, to shipments valued at tens of thousands of dollars or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, such as electronic goods. Carriers have a very substantial economic interest to try to prevent any container being lost.”

Moreover, there could also be impacts on the marine ecosystem which are only now beginning to be understood, thanks to ground-breaking research on a sunken container found almost 1,300m below the surface of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary off California. Although the container was found ten years ago, research has only been carried out by scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in the last few years. And their findings, published in 2014, have piqued the interest of the shipping industry.

Firstly, the researchers have discovered, unsurprisingly, that the zone around the container has been affected: “A different assemblage of species grows on and gathers around the container, than is found further away from the container [and] the sediments around the container are a different size than further away, because the container affects deep sea currents,” explains Andrew DeVogelaere, leader of the research team.

“There may [also] be toxicity from paint chips that came off the container; we are analysing toxicity samples right now.”

There could also – potentially at least – be much wider ranging effects on the marine ecosystem. “We only have one container being studied so we cannot extrapolate much,” DeVogelaere emphasises. “[But] in the deep, a container could certainly persist for hundreds of years, if not more.’

Indian shipyards have long bemoaned a lack of support but all that now looks to change.

“There is a hypothesis that containers that fall off regularly along clearly defined shipping routes (more likely around Asia than across the Pacific because ships in the Pacific have more flexibility to avoid storms), might form ‘stepping stones’ for non-native species to colonise new areas. There is no evidence of this yet, but it’s possible.”

Minimising future losses: a big priority

As well as studying the impacts of sunken containers on the marine ecosystem, DeVogelaere and his team are also doing all they can to help the shipping industry – through their research – to minimise the number of containers lost overboard in the future.

“Our research was mentioned in the proposed ruling process, initiated by the US Coast Guard, related to standardising techniques for lashing down containers,” DeVogelaere says. “[And] scientists on our project have been asked to provide information to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staff working on this topic with the International Maritime Organization (IMO).”

And the MBARI team certainly isn’t the only one committed to reducing the number of container losses in the future. Both the WSC and the IMO are actively supporting a number of initiatives designed precisely for this purpose, including amendments to the Safety of Life at Sea Convention that will require container weight verification as a condition for vessel loading.

Such a requirement could help improve the safety of shipping containers and help to address the problem, according to research by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the IMO and the International Labour Organization. The organisations have endorsed a new global code of practice for the handling and packing of shipping containers for transportation by sea and land. The code’s draft version states: “Improper mass declaration of a container may result in an improper stowage position on board the ship and, thereby, in a fatal overstressing of the securing equipment for a stack of containers or the ship’s structure.”

Indeed, although no definitive cause was found for the MOL Comfort sinking, improper loading was certainly a strong possibility. In fact, the committee that investigated the sinking concluded that “verification of the actual weight of container cargoes provided by the shipper is recommended as a safety measure for large container ships.”

Another measure being taken to address the problem is the ISO’s work in, collaboration with the shipping industry, on potential new ISO standards for container lashing equipment.

While the number of container losses in relation to the incredible amount of cargo shipped around the world each year is small, each individual loss does have an impact, both economically and ecologically. But with new regulation surrounding container losses coming into play, such incidences may soon be better avoided.