Container Spills

The world’s largest container ship, MSC Irina (Image: Vessel Finder)

It is said that 90% of everything that we eat, wear and consume has once been in a container and transported on a container ship. In 2022, over 250 million containers, with their cargo worth trillions of dollars, were transported around the world. At any point in time, more than 6,000 container ships are in operation.

The 20-foot container, referred to as a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) has become the industry standard reference, so cargo volume and vessel capacity are commonly measured in TEUs. The largest container ships can carry more than 24,000 TEUs, carrying everything from toys to trainers, from figs to fridges, and from motorbikes to medical tape.

MV Rena Monrovia, which grounded off the coast of New Zealand in Oct 2021 (Image: Tasmanian Times)

These containers may be properly packed, stowed and secured, but stacked ever higher, and with factors ranging from severe weather and rough seas to ship groundings, structural failures, collisions, or even human error, some never reach their destination, and are lost at sea. The World Shipping Council, which aims to improve safety in container handling and transport, reported that in the twelve years up to 2020, an average of 1,382 containers fell overboard each year. The winter of 2020-21 saw an unusually high number of weather-related incidents, with an average loss over of more than 3,000 containers over the two-year period 2020 to 2021. In 2022, 661 containers were lost, the lowest percentage loss since records began in 2008.

Containers may break up whilst falling off the ship or hitting the sea floor but also may remain intact for a period of time. The ship’s captain has a responsibility to report to the coastguard any container loss that is either a hazard to shipping or the contents are hazardous.

Unfortunately it seems many of these contents (including plastic) are not deemed a hazard. That is where we can begin to help. When we walk beaches, we can record items that keep washing onto our beaches – HP ink cartridges, Pulman slippers, tea capsules, various shoes and more. Recording may lead to identification of pollution sources and perhaps in time a change of law.

HP ink cartridge (Image: Wikidéchets)

Strandliners aim to catalogue container spill items that have polluted our shores so that more accurate information is available. We also aim to build a table of recorded losses in the English Channel and in the Atlantic that have brought items to our beaches.

One of our much-used sources of information, Wikidéchets, no longer seems to be available, but there are records of finds here.