The past year saw the global supply chain of goods stretched and stressed in numerous ways, and here's one more: the shipping industry is seeing the biggest spike in cargo containers going overboard in nearly a decade. In just two months this winter, cargo ships lost twice as many shipping containers than the annual average. Between November 30 and January 30, more than 2,675 containers—containing furniture, fitness products, electronics, and more—were lost in five separate incidents, according to the trade magazine American Shipper.
Bad winter weather, a surge in pandemic-related demand, and increasingly larger container ships have combined to make cargo ship travel more treacherous. The sheer size of the Ever Given, the ship that blocked the Suez Canal this year, and the number of containers it carried have been discussed as contributing factors to its predicament, for example. Beyond inconvenience and lost profit, losing containers can have disastrous environmental consequences, as plastic can last for hundreds—if not thousands—of years in the ocean. Plastic doesn’t decompose, but lives on as tiny fragments of microplastic, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems.
Before this winter, the average number of containers lost to sea annually was declining, according to a 2020 report from the World Shipping Council (WSC). Of the 226 million containers shipped each year, less than one thousandth of 1 percent are lost, WSC estimated. Still, that small sliver of losses adds up to a lot of environmental pollution.
An estimated 90 percent of traded goods are carried by cargo ships. That is only set to increase over the coming decades, and ships keep getting bigger to accommodate. A single spill isn’t easy to clean up, either.
One recent study, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, tracked the ink cartridges spilled from a cargo ship in the North Atlantic Ocean in 2014. The team of researchers used social media and oceanographic modeling to track about 1500 ink cartridges. The accident occurred off the coast of New York, but the cartridges were found littered on beaches from Florida to Norway.
“Cargo spillages are not common, but estimates suggest there could be several thousand containers lost at sea every year,” lead author Andrew Turner said in a press release. “They can cause harm to the seabed but, once ruptured, their contents can have an impact both where they are lost and–as shown in this study–much more widely.”
“There are no regulations regarding loss of e-waste from containers”
The researchers, who are from the University of Plymouth and the Lost at Sea Project, also analyzed the cartridges, discovering that they had weathered significantly to release microplastics and electronic chips into the ocean.
“Because these cartridges have an electronic tag, they are classified as e-waste and there are more strict regulations regarding their transport and disposal but notably, there are no regulations regarding loss of e-waste from containers,” Turner said in an email.
At the start of the pandemic, experts assumed that trade would experience a serious downturn. However, according to a United Nations report, the opposite happened: a rise in e-commerce and the new ubiquity of working from home has driven a spike in demand for manufactured goods, many of which are transported by cargo ship. The stimulus checks only bolstered this trend.
Bigger ships on choppy waters is already a recipe for disaster, but the pressures of consumer demands during the pandemic tipped the scales. Jonathan Ranger, head of marine Asia Pacific at insurance firm American International Group Inc., told Bloomberg that captains have the option to avoid dangerous waters when a storm approaches. Trying to go as fast as possible, however, the attitude is “don’t go around the storm, go through,” Ranger said.
The rise in demand was matched with particularly rough winter winds in the North Pacific, where two of the five big accidents took place and most of the cargo was lost. Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist for The Weather Company said that after analyzing weather data from 1948 to now, these winds were the second strongest on record.
Normally, strong winds in the North Pacific are associated with El Niño winters, but this was a La Niña winter, Crawford explained. Changes in La Niña and El Niño patterns is one of the projected impacts of climate change, but this year’s strong winds have not yet been linked to any particular weather pattern.
Crawford said that scientists are still investigating what could have contributed to this windy winter: how warming ocean temperatures are changing La Niña and El Niño, and how melting Arctic sea ice could be changing the jet stream. Regardless of cause, changing weather patterns could affect the future of cargo ship travel.
“There are some odd things that are happening that I'm still scratching my head over,” Crawford said. “We still have a long way to go in terms of understanding how changing weather patterns are working.”