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Impacts of Container Ship Disasters in a Surge of Global Trade

By: Alyssa Starmer

Photo by Venti Views on Unsplash

Container shipping plays a crucial role in global trade by connecting nations and businesses throughout the world. Maritime shipping has become the backbone of international commerce. The size and demand of container ships have skyrocketed over the years, reflecting our escalating requirement for efficient goods transportation. Currently making up 80 percent of global trade, these vessels traverse our oceans daily. Unfortunately, container shipping environmental impacts are pressing concerns that we must bring attention to — from the broader ecological consequences of sea freight to the ramifications of container ship disasters. 

As shipping increases so does the frequency of maritime shipping disasters, especially as ship size grows and conditions worsen from climate change. Container ship accidents can potentially destroy millions of dollars worth of goods, damage vessels, and threaten lives and the surrounding environment. As container ship disasters increase in frequency, corresponding environmental consequences intensify. Ship disasters emphasize the critical need for enhanced environmental regulations and emergency response mechanisms in global shipping. Potential environmental impacts from container shipping include oil spills, the release of physical pollutants, ship strikes, noise pollution, and the unintentional release of invasive species. 

Oil spills contaminate coastlines and harm species through coating and toxin accumulation. The NGO Oceana estimates that “if global shipping were a country, it would be the sixth largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions”. The rapid acceleration of these emissions intensifies global warming and its impacts on our environment. Remarkably, the largest container ships create the same amount of pollution as 50 million cars. Bunker fuel, a cost-effective oil used to power these large container ships, is extremely harmful once entering the marine environment. Toxic components of bunker fuel that leach into the environment can be very harmful to humans and marine organisms, with the potential to cause long-term effects by entering the kidney and liver and suppressing the immune system

Physical pollutants released from ships including waste and cargo, can alter ocean chemistry and cause long-term effects on marine ecosystems. The assessment of environmental impact in container ship disasters is complex due to the unpredictable nature of the contents of containers, with each potentially holding a different mix of products with varying ecological significance. Container shipments globally are generally comprised of chemicals (~33%), rubber and paper products (~20%), machinery and parts (~18%), agricultural products (~15%), textiles and furniture (~11%), and electronics (~3%), with 40% of container ship cargo being hazardous on average. Determining the environmental impact of container pollution is difficult due to the variety of cargo on a ship in an event. Oftentimes dangerous cargo goes undeclared due to inattention, ignorance, cost, or illegal activity. Lack of documentation adds to the difficulty in understanding container shipment composition and its corresponding ecological impacts. As 45% of major container ship fires result from undeclared goods, there is an urgent need for stronger regulations for reporting container ship goods. 

The total impact of container loss remains unclear due to the inaccuracy of container documentation and the difficulty of recovering and recording lost containers. Ships may lose containers as a result of incorrectly declared weights, faulty container connections, improper stacking, poor container conditions, and extreme weather conditions. Currently, there are relaxed procedures for reporting container ship loss and no international regulations to address this pressing issue.

In addition to oil spills and container loss, ship strikes can badly injure or kill marine mammals and are a leading cause of mortality to endangered whale populations. Strikes often occur because shipping lanes align directly with whale migration routes. Underwater noise pollution from ships also affects marine mammals by drowning out noises necessary for communication, hunting, and navigating the waters. Noise pollution leads to heightened stress levels in marine organisms and the advent of corresponding health issues. Container ships can also inadvertently introduce invasive species to new areas via ballast water and through hull fouling, where organisms attach to the outside of the ship. Invasive species, successively, contribute to the extinction of native plants, alter habitats, and reduce biodiversity. 

Contamination from container ship pollution and disasters can accumulate through the food chain and pose issues for human health. Though these disasters may ‘resolve’ in a few days, contents from container ship spills can circulate the ocean for decades or even centuries. Addressing these issues is vital not only for marine environmental protection but also for protecting human health.

Despite their increasing frequency, some things can be done to mitigate the occurrence of container ship disasters and the global environmental impacts of trade. To prevent disasters, it is crucial to increase container shipping regulations. In addition, monitoring of proper shipping container packaging, weight limits, loading, and stacking must increase. Expanding training and emergency response procedures can significantly minimize the magnitude of disasters if they occur. On an individual level, practicing sustainable consumption by making local purchases and minimizing material consumption can contribute to decreasing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with increasing global trade. Additionally, marine wildlife protection, marine planning, and collaboration of shipping companies can foster thoughtful development, management, and monitoring of shipping operations, ultimately reducing future negative marine impacts. Through enhanced regulations, improved practices, and conscientious choices, we can steer global container ship trade towards a more environmentally friendly course, protecting our oceans for generations to come.

Works Cited

Abaei, M. M., Ali, I., Anderson, T. K., Beer, S., Bi, H., Björdal, C. G., Chen, W., Chen, Z. K., Courtene-Jones, W., Cozzolino, L., Cunha, I., Ellis, J., Feng, Q., Fuhrer, M., Fustes, D., Hetherington, C., Jacobsen, J. K., Jitar, O., Kim, Y. R., … Demil, B. (2022, September 22). Emerging marine pollution from container ship accidents: Risk characteristics, Response Strategies, and regulation advancements. Journal of Cleaner Production. 

Berti, A. (2019, June 21). Lost at sea: How shipping container pollution affects the environment. Ship Technology. 

How shipping containers end up in the ocean - WSJ. The Wall Street Journal. (2021, February 3). 

​​Lydon, T. (2021, December 27). 3,000 shipping containers fell into the Pacific Ocean Last Winter • the revelator. The Revelator. 

Pergamon. (2023, February 21). The X-Press pearl disaster underscores gross neglect in the environmental management of shipping: Review of Future Data Needs. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 

Pompili, L. (2022, October 21). Cargo Ships Pollution Impact on environment and human health. The New Global Order.


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