Why lost containers at sea are a ‘wake-up call for the maritime industry’, and why involvement from the entire supply chain is necessary
The need for industry and supply chains to work together to prevent containers being lost at sea was highlighted at a recent European Maritime Day workshop.
The Lost Containers at Sea workshop was organised by COBS in association with Riviera Maritime Media. The workshop identified the pain points lost containers are causing to stakeholders and the impact this is having, the actions that should be taken and legislation requirements.
Statistics highlighted the extent of the problem, as COBS-Container Overboard System founder Carlos Freire unveiled the number of containers lost at sea. More than 1,500 containers are lost at sea every year, with 3,000 boxes dropped into the sea last year, and in 2021 1,000 containers have been lost overboard to date. Indeed, US$54M has already been lost this year in terms of overboard containers.
A major theme was the urgent need to act and for the industry to collaborate to help solve the issue. Director and owner of GreenWavePlastics Bernard Merkx said “There are a lot of challenges. And my view is we can only do it together, but doing nothing is no longer an option.”
He kicked off the webinar by saying he expected incidents to increase due to pressure on supply chains. He singled out how recently some containers were tipped overboard in a UNESCO heritage area. It happened close to the Dutch coast so money was not a major issue and recovery was paid for straightaway.
But Mr Merkx warned, “That is not the case for many other countries in the world. We also see insurance companies delaying payouts for damages. And there was a big discussion about consequential damages – it is not the container itself, but what is coming out of the container and going into the environment. I plead for another system of funding to cope with these issues.”
Surfrider Foundation Europe spokesperson and lobbying manager Antidia Citores spoke about why containers are lost overboard and recommendations from NGO Surfrider Foundation Europe, which is dedicated to protecting the ocean and seas. Highlighting the very low percentage of containers lost overboard that are recovered – just 3% – she warned, “We have to act and work together to prevent lost containers.”
She said Surfrider Foundation Europe wants to raise awareness that “just one container could have a big impact on the coastline”. It has carried out an analysis that has found several regular causes for the loss of containers overboard. Ms Citores said, “There is a bad declaration on the container weight, poor stowage… but also the state of the containers is sometimes really bad.” Surfrider Foundation Europe has made recommendations to ensure better safety, such as more transparency, better tracking systems and traceability, and making safety measures mandatory.
COBS is developing an alert, identification, tracking and maritime container floating system. Mr Freire said the company has identified core issues, with one of them being the supply chain. Mr Freire said “This is like the butterfly effect. The loss of the container might not be identified or communicated to supply chain stakeholders… they are not able to take any action until this happens.”
He said the loss of containers created a “big mix of liabilities and cost-disrupting supply chains for hundreds of retailers and manufacturers. There are many generic texts on specific laws around root causes of the problem. But these conventions do not cover [the container] once the incident has occurred. They are not enough. This is what COBS is about, as soon as the container is overboard we want to alert the stakeholders in the supply chain so they can take immediately take action to reduce the impact. And we want to make those containers visible for surrounding ships and the entire supply chain to track them.” The COBS inflatable system can be used to keep containers afloat so they can be rescued quickly.
Mr Freire summed up, “But just a single piece of technology or idea will not solve this. We need public and private party support to solve this global problem. We need legislation and mandatory actions to be taken. We need to collaborate, learn and take actions.”
Meanwhile, chair of the International Regulations Commission of World Sailing, vice admiral sir Alan Massey KCB CBE said he was looking at the issue of containers overboard from the perspective of small vessels and recreational sailors. Explaining their danger to small vessels he said, “There are lots of them about – a container will often float partially submerged with only a little bit showing. There is currently no consistent ability to locate, track or trace them. They’re invisible to small vessels sailing at night. And even in daytime, they’re extremely difficult to spot and avoid.”
Explaining the damage they can inflict, he said, “The sharp corners of containers can cut through the hull of a fibreglass yacht without even trying. Collision damage below the waterline can be catastrophic and boats can sink very quickly.”
He said, “We’d like to see the EU continue to pursue new ISO standards for locating and tracking containers when lost at sea, and a tracking and reporting system to aid collision avoidance and to allow for container recovery. We want to see international support for such measures to protect the safety of life and environment.”
World Sailing delegate to IMO David Brunskill highlighted challenges, but also said matters are moving forward. “Currently, there is no obligation to recover containers, or there is no obligation to locate containers. However, this has now been taken forward by IMO. It is a subject of great concern and involvement by the European Union. It is European policy that has been driving much of this debate at IMO and worldwide. We hope we can continue to engage and promote the debate.”
Key conclusions centred around the need for the whole maritime industry and supply chain to join forces.
Mr Merkx said, “The takeaway is, there is more that falls overboard from the maritime industry than just containers. Containers, however, have a huge impact. And it’s not highlighted enough what the environmental impacts of container losses are.”
But there are some positives. “The port reception facilities directive by the EU, and certainly other legislation coming up is a step forward. But the industry can also take their own responsibility, and I invite them to do that. Quickly.”
While Ms Citores said, “Tracking is good, but tracking is not enough. This is a wake-up call for the maritime industry – the maritime industry is acting now. But we need the whole supply chain involved in that fight against the loss of containers.”
Mr Freire highlighted the importance of deploying technology to help solve the container overboard problem. “We have very good technology to track, to locate, to alert and to keep everyone aware of the lost containers and to find a rescue. It’s a matter of joining forces to solve this situation.”
Sir Massey indicated that more needed to be done about the cause of lost containers. “More needs to be done about the root cause of lost containers.” He singled out the large container stacks on ships and how, in extreme weather, they can fall off if they have not been properly lashed or stowed or have wrongly declared weights. “So there’s a regulatory function that needs to be addressed here on existing regulations, let alone new ones,” he said. In terms of new regulations, there is “quite a clamour” for making a tracking system mandatory.
But he warned “That’s going to take a long time to get through. And one of the reasons it’s going to take a long time to evolve is because it means costs for shipowners. That’s a very delicate and difficult issue to work around. People who are concerned about these problems have to raise the profile… It needs worldwide awareness, and a strong law that says something needs to be done.”
Mr Brunskill commented that one of his takeaways was, “The legal moves that have to be adopted to get an improved position for tracking, locating and recovering containers is long, and it is complex. People appreciate it is not going to be quick and is not going to be easy”.
Lost containers polls
The severity of the lost containers issue was highlighted by the polls the webinar audience participated in. Asked how significant an issue lost containers is, a clear majority believed it is ‘very important, and we must work on mitigation actions as well’. This was followed by ‘it is very important, but I believe this issue will decrease now as substantive measures are underway’. At number three was the statement ’it is very important, but we must focus on solving root causes’. At the bottom was ‘minimal issue compared with issues facing the maritime-logistics industry’.
Asked who should take charging of resolving the issue, the poll revealed most of the audience believe that ’both private and public must lead and work together on a solution.’ This was followed by ’private and maritime logistics stakeholders (shipping companies, insurance companies).’ At number three was ’public organisations (IMO, MSC, EU)’ and at four ’each country should set its own regulations and solutions.’
Asked who is most affected when a container is lost at sea, the number one answer in the poll was ‘other’, followed by ’shipping company/shipping container owners.’ Then came ’insurance companies’ and finally, ’the exporter.’
The greatest impact of a container overboard is, said the audience, ’environmental’, followed by ’navigation safety’. At number three was the ’collateral-butterfly effect’ and at four was ’supply chain/economical.’
Asked if legislation should make overboard container recovery mandatory, the vast majority agreed, while in second place was ’just dangerous goods.’ In third place was ’no.’
The audience was asked: why do you think the issue of lost containers does not feature more prominently on the maritime agenda? The most popular statement was because of ’legal and legislation complexity regarding incident causes and defining liability.’ At number two was ’there are more powerful lobbies championing other issues and interests,’ followed by ‘because this would increase overall TEU transport cost’. Last was ’I do not see it as a real problem. There are very few incidents and there are bigger issues.’
Delegates were asked: prior to this workshop were you aware the EU supported an IMO output considering tracking, tracing and recovery of lost containers? 46% said yes and 54% said no.
Mr Brunskill commented “I think it’s heartening that 46% of the participants were aware the EU is doing something about the tracking and location of containers.”
Lost containers at sea panel
Chairperson: Edwin Lampert, Executive Editor and Head of Business Relations, Riviera Maritime Media
Antidia Citores, Spokesperson, Lobbying Manager Surfrider Foundation Europe – Member of board – Healthy Oceans, seas, coastal and inland waters
Bernard Merkx, Director and owner at GreenWavePlastics, Member of the board of directors at Plastix A/S, Honorary President at Plastics Recyclers Europe and Co-Founder at Waste Free Oceans Foundation
Carlos Freire, COBS-Container Overboard System Founder
Vice Admiral Sir Alan Massey KCB CBE
David Brunskill, World Sailing delegate to the International Maritime Organisation