From the Editor: Containing Container Spillage

By Mark Nero, Managing Editor

According to data from the Center for Biological Diversity, thousands of shipping containers have fallen from cargo ships into the ocean since October, 2020.

And if that isn’t bad enough, that number of spillages isn’t a global total; it refers to incidents that occurred solely in the Pacific Ocean while containers were being transported between the Asia and the United States.

At least six spills since last fall have dumped 3,000 cargo containers into the Pacific Ocean along shipping routes between the U.S. and Asian countries, CBD data show.

The largest of these spills was a November 2020 incident in which a 1,200-foot cargo ship packed with thousands of containers full of goods was sailing from China to the Port of Long Beach. In remote waters 1,600 miles northwest of Hawai’i, the container stack lashed to the ship’s deck collapsed, tossing more than 1,800 containers into the sea.

Also included in the total: the loss of 750 containers from a cargo vessel on Jan. 16; and 100 containers that fell from a cargo ship last Oct. 30. Both ships encountered rough weather while delivering goods to the United States.

Although these incidents tend to fly under the radar of some within the goods transport industry, the rise in the occurrences, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, is adding to a growing marine plastic pollution problem and poses risks to ocean health and wildlife, as well as mariners.

Many spillages occur due to jostling and shifting of containers and restraints caused by bad weather in rough seas, but investigations sometimes reveal underlying problems in lashing and other practices that occur before vessels even leave port.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units (commonly called the CTU Code), is a global code of practice for cargo ships that addresses packing, stacking and lashing of containers. Although the code isn’t mandatory for shippers, it provides comprehensive information and references on all aspects of loading and securing of cargo in containers and other intermodal transport are provided, taking account of the requirements of all sea and land transport modes.

To be honest, if more shippers, shipping lines and longshore workers in the U.S. and abroad adhered to the guidelines in the CTU Code, there’s no guarantee that it would reduce the number of cargo containers that go overboard and wind up in the ocean in any given year. But there’s also no guarantee that it wouldn’t. And utilizing a document that was created with the purpose of standardizing best practices couldn’t or shouldn’t be a bad thing – especially if the document can help prevent or reduce cargo loss and also help protect the environment.

The CTU Code is currently available on the website for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, and is downloadable in English, Spanish, Chinese and other languages.

Managing Editor Mark Nero can be reached at: