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Can containers float and where did all those rubber duckies in the ocean come from?

When containers fall overboard

More than 80% of goods traded worldwide travel on one of the more than 90,000 cargo ships crisscrossing the world’s oceans. And right at the heart of it all is the container – one of the most important inventions for global trade. It is estimated that there are between 25 and 40 million containers currently in use. A very small number of these will go missing, either out of oversight or due to rough seas. So what happens to those lost containers and what do Lego, running shoes and rubber duckies have to do with it?

When you consider that an almost unimaginable total of 840 million TEUs were handled at ports wordlwide in 2021, it is little surprising that statistically speaking at least some of them will go missing at some point during their journey. For a long time it was unclear just how many of these containers go overboard each year on average. An estimate of 10,000 containers annually is entirely plausible, which would mean the equivalent of 27 containers lost every day. But it is definitely not quite as bad as that.

How do you even lose a container?

Proper packing, stowage of the goods and securing of the containers and the correct reporting of weight are not just an art in and of themselves, but a real technical challenge. They are critical in ensuring the safety of the container ship, its crew and its cargo as well as of dockers and the environment. A number of critical factors remain even if the cargo has been properly stowed in the container, its weight taken into account during stacking and everything professionally secured. Starting from a storm and rough seas, negligence, stack collapse all the way to catastrophic and rare events like a collision or running aground.

Fallen overboard or sunk with the ship?

The World Shipping Council commissioned a nine-year research study to come up with reliable figures for container loss. Between 2008 and 2016, an average of 568 containers were lost per year. This figure did not include catastrophic events, such as a ship sinking or running aground or shipwrecks (examples include the Rena off of New Zealand in 2011, the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean in 2013 and the El Faro off of Puerto Rico in 2015). Running the calculations for these kinds of incidents results in a figure of 1,582 containers lost on the world’s seas. But aside from catastrophes of this sort, sometimes all it takes is a storm at sea to send a container overboard. A recent case: The freighter MSC Zoe, one of the world’s largest container ships, measuring 394 meters in length and with a deadweight capacity of 19,000 standard containers, lost a total of 345 containers in the North Sea in early 2019. The photographs of the television sets, dolls and sandals that washed up on Dutch beaches were seen around the world.
If you think 345 is a lot - the industry witnessed even higher losses recently: The Maersk Essen lost 750 boxes in January 2021 in the Pacific, its sister ship, the Eindhoven, around 260 boxes in February 2021, and the ONE Apus a staggering 1,800 containers in December 2020.

Who bears responsibility and what do the laws say?

Essentially it is the shipping company that was hired to transport the goods that is responsible for them, and the companies are insured for precisely these cases. However the shipping company´s liability is usually limited by a certain amount per kg/packing unit. Therefore also the client should be insured against these risks. A transport insurance policy covers not only damage or loss of merchandise up to the respective sum insured, but is also applicable in cases of "Havarie Grosse". If a ship, with its cargo, is in distress at sea or endangered by fire or a lightning strike and is rescued alongside its cargo, then the cost of said rescue of ship and cargo is split proportionally amongst the goods’ owners and the ship’s owner according to the cost of the goods being transported – even if the goods arrive undamaged.

What about finding flotsam while walking on the beach?

When the MS Zoe lost containers January 2019, enthusiastic crowds flocked to the beaches to have a look at what had come ashore. But can you actually claim any flotsam you find on the beach? The answer differs depending on where you are in the world. It is not illegal in the Netherlands to take goods that have washed up onshore. Sealed containers, however, may not be opened. Had the containers or their contents washed up on German shores, it would have been illegal to claim any of the flotsam according to the principle “theft by finding”.

Flotsam: the hidden danger

Most containers sink quite rapidly to the ocean floor once they hit the water. But depending on their contents, they may stay afloat for days or even weeks before sliding beneath the surface. This process can take even longer for refrigerated containers on account of their buoyant insulation. For example, one container that washed into the Atlantic off the coast of France rode the waves for eleven months before finally being deposited on the southern coast of Great Britain.

One Swiss marine biologist estimates the number of containers floating around the world’s seas at 12,000 at least. This number is alarming since these large UFOs (“Unidentified Floating Objects”) pose a significant risk to smaller ocean-going vessels such as yachts and fishing boats. The danger of collision is actually quite high, since sailors often only see these boxes at the very last minute since they barely break the surface. The ship’s radar is not much help here either, as it only picks up large objects above the water’s surface. There are regular reports of collisions and stricken yachts have to be salvaged. In the most serious cases these boats end up sinking.

Danger to yachts, and the environment too

But containers floating around the oceans are not only a danger to shipping. In many cases containers house chemicals or other dangerous goods that can have grave consequences for the environment. Fortunately there have been no serious incidents so far but containers may hold a number of things besides chemicals that are concerning from an environmental point of view. In 1997 a large wave hit a container ship off the coast of Cornwall, near Perran Sands beach. A container full of Lego bricks fell from the ship and to this day hundreds of Legos wash up on the beach daily. In the meantime, the nearby community has experienced a small boom in tourism, and many of the residents take regular walks along the beach to hunt for the little bricks in the sand. Legos may not seem like anything other than a harmless and much-loved toy, but they have no business being in the ocean. Moreover the type of plastic they are made from takes even longer to break down than “normal plastic”. This is a legacy that will be with us even one hundred years from now.

Sneakers and plastic ducks trace currents

The amount of garbage and microplastics in our planet’s oceans has reached alarming proportions. But many marine researchers have made the best out of this disturbing development by using these materials to study ocean currents. For example, the story of 29,000 plastic ducks and blue and green plastic frogs and turtles made headlines worldwide. Having “escaped” from a container lost in the Pacific in 1992, they ended up floating ashore on beaches across the entire world before finally reaching as far as Europe in 2007. Think about it: Their haphazard journey lasted 15 years and carried them nearly 27,000 kilometers from where they originated. Just two years prior, 61,000 sneakers helped scientists trace ocean currents that travel between Alaska and Hawai’i. These “Friendly Floatees”, as American oceanographers dubbed them, were a fantastic practical means of identifying the movements of these currents.

How a sunken container offered shelter to a deep-sea animal community off the coast of California

Cargo insurance can help in case of accident


Insure yourself against risks related to transporting cargo and protect your goods with cargo insurance. This covers not only damage/loss with respect to goods (as in accordance with terms of the policy), but is also applicable in cases of “Havarie Grosse”.*
cargo-partner’s cargo insurance policies can insure your merchandise for up to 130% of its value and cover additional costs (e.g. carrying costs). Our Sea Freight team would be happy to provide you with more detailed information.

* If a ship, with its cargo, is in distress at sea or endangered by fire or a lightning strike and is rescued alongside its cargo, then the cost of said rescue of ship and cargo is split proportionally amongst the goods’ owners and the ship’s owner according to the cost of the goods being transported. Even if the goods arrive undamaged.