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Overboard. What happens to the 1,582 containers that are lost at sea each year?

PortandTerminal.com, January 3, 2019

Note: This article has been updated since publication to reflect recent salvage efforts of the MSC Zoe incident.

Today the MSC Zoe lost 270 containers off of the Dutch coast. The ship is the largest serving European ports with a capacity of 19,000 TEU. The cargo ship encountered heavy weather while sailing toward Bremerhaven, Germany, and a number of containers were either damaged or lost overboard, MSC noted. Gale force winds and waves as high as 33 feet were reported during that night, according to the BBC.

As I write this article, only a dozen of so of the containers have been recovered. Debris is starting to wash up on local beaches. Many of the 270 containers will likely never be recovered.

What happens to the containers that are lost for good? Let’s start by looking how many containers are lost each year.

How many containers are lost each year?

In 2011 The World Shipping Council, a Washington-based trade group whose members account for about 80 percent of global ocean-carrier capacity, began asking its members how many containers they lost at sea.

They found that over the total nine-year period covered in its surveys, from 2008 through 2016, an average of 568 containers were lost at sea each year. That figure, however, doesn’t include catastrophic events, which the council defines as those that claim 50 or more containers. Factor those in, and the average rises to 1,582 a year.

Given the millions upon millions of containers that are shipped each year, losing 1,582 or so should be no big deal in the scheme of things. But it is.

The danger

Lost containers create an environmental and shipping hazard. Three of the containers lost today on the MSC Zoe contain carried a toxic powder of organic peroxide. One bag containing 25kg of peroxide powder was found on the island of Schiermonnikoog. Other less toxic debris has been washing up on Dutch beaches in the wake of MSC Zoe incident as shown in the photos below.

“A single container can carry 5 million plastic shopping bags, which if lost at sea could itself become a catastrophe”

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an American Oceanographer who has researched the topic extensively.

And then there’s the risk to other ships lost containers create. Containers are lost in major shipping lanes and many do not immediately sink. They hang around, and create serious danger for smaller vessels who use the same shipping lanes and are at risk of colliding into them.

What happens to the containers that aren’t recovered?

One of three things. They break up and spew their contents, they sink, or as we saw already, they hang about and create a marine traffic hazard.

In 2014, LiveScience reported on the discovery of a shipping container that had been lost from a vessel in a storm off of the coast of California. The container was discovered by scientists 4,200 feet (1,300 m) below the surface just four months after it had gone overboard. The container, which had barely corroded, seemed to have a mixed effect on the local marine environment.

A shipping container after seven years on the seafloor. Credit: MBARI

“We have only begun to characterize the potential long-term impacts of a single container on a deep-sea community.

Although the effects of one container may seem small, the thousands of shipping containers lost on the seafloor each year could eventually become a significant source of pollution for deep-sea ecosystems,” lead author of the study Josi Taylor said in a news release.

What next?

Overall, the shipping industry does a great job at delivering boxes to their intended destination without mishap.

There are currently over 20 million shipping containers in the world, and five or six million of them are currently shipping around the world on vessels, trucks, and trains. In total, they make around 200 million trips a year. Losing 1,582 on average per year is small potatoes.

But those potatoes add up year upon year on the ocean floor and change it in ways we do not fully understand.

Look for more discussion and analysis on this topic in the coming days and weeks as the full extent of today’s news about the MSC Zoe accident off of the Dutch coast becomes more clear.

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