How Lost Shipping Containers Factor Into The Global Ocean Pollution Problem

Newsletter summary – It took decades to solve the mystery of Garfield phones that were polluting French beaches. Turns out a load of the novelty item, modeled after the popular orange cartoon character, was slowly being purged from a shipping container that had been lost at sea. That begs the question: Are shipping containers like these polluting global waterways at alarming rates?

For years, claims have persisted that the shipping industry significantly pollutes global waterways by losing containers overboard and arguably no example was higher profile than the Garfield phones case. It took decades to solve the mystery of the novelty item, modeled after the popular orange cartoon character, that continuously washed up on French beaches from a shipping container lost at sea.

Which begs the question: Are wayward containers polluting global waterways at alarming rates?

At any point in time, there are about 6,000 containerships active on the world’s seas and waterways to facilitate global trade and lost containers represent only about one thousandth of 1 percent of the roughly 130 million container loads shipped each year, according to the World Shipping Council (WSC), which publishes results of a member survey every three years.

For its 2017 report, the latest available, WSC gathered data for 2014-2016. The average annual number of containers lost at sea, excluding catastrophic events, was 612 during the period. That number is down about 16 percent compared to the average of 733 units lost each year for the previous three-year period. When catastrophic losses are included, defined as 50 or more containers in a single incident, the total number of containers lost at sea averaged 1,390 annually for the most recent period. That’s still a 48 percent reduction from the average annual losses of 2,683 estimated during the previous three-year period.

By comparison, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution — a substantial amount from single-use plastic bottles and grocery sacks — finds its way into the oceans each year.

The WSC survey, launched in 2011, refutes unsupported claims that the shipping industry is responsible for as many as 10,000 lost containers each year (more than 7x the actual current number). In each survey, WSC member companies — representing 80 percent of the combined global vessel container capacity — were asked to report lost overboard containers for the previous three-year period.

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All member companies responded for the most recent report, according to the WSC, and the council assumed for its analysis that container losses for the remaining 20 percent of companies that aren’t members was roughly the same as members.

Even with proper packing of cargo into the container and proper stowage aboard a ship, other factors that are out of shippers control can send containers overboard. This includes everything from severe weather and rough seas to more catastrophic and rare events, like ship groundings, structural failures, and collisions.

When it comes to the question of whether or not shipping containers are significantly polluting global waterways, the answer is “no.”

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