The curious case of the disappearing container

Shipping containers are by far the most efficient means of transporting cargo across the globe. Piled high on the decks of container ships lie thousands upon thousands of packed units – up to 20,000 on the recently introduced triple E class ships. Over a quarter of a mile long, taller than the Olympic Stadium and carrying more steel than eight Eiffel towers, they are truly a wonder of the modern age. nnHowever, with five to six million containers making their way across the seas at any one time, it comes as little surprise that every now and again, one doesn’t quite make it. There could be a vicious Atlantic storm, a poorly secured unit, or collision with an iceberg (too soon?) that causes a unit to fall from its perch into the depths of the waters below. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 10,000 containers a year are lost to the sharks, not a huge figure in the grand scheme of things, but with a significant and unknown impact. What happens to lost shipping containers? This is their untold story. nn n

What happens when a container is lost?

nGenerally speaking, retrieving a container is both dangerous, expensive and time-consuming. For this reason, most shipping companies will plough on if a container falls overboard, leaving it to its salty fate. Sometimes a unit will sink without a trace, while other times it’ll valiantly float for a few hours or even days. This is especially true for refrigeration units, which are lined with lightweight insulation. However, sooner or later, the container gives up the ghost, descending to its final resting place below. nnWhen a container is lost, the company can claim it back through special insurance. The result is that the shipping company, the container manufacturer and the poor soul who put all their goods into the container don’t lose out on any cost invested so far.nn n

What happens to the cargo?

nMost of the time the cargo of a shipping container disappears with it. Common consumer goods don’t tend to be things that float so well, especially when locked inside two and a half tonnes of steel. That said, containers can open up upon the heavy impact with the sea, releasing their goods. Most of the time this is far from ideal, littering our oceans; however, some events can, rather bizarrely, be a force for good. nnIn 1992 a container travelling between China and Seattle emptied out into the Pacific ocean. While nothing was noted at the time, people began to report rubber ducks and bath toys washing up onto shores over the next decade. From the beaches of Portugal to Florida to Hawaii, it seemed that there was nowhere left untouched by the swarm of tiny creatures. By calling on beachcombers to report these sightings, oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmayer was able to use this information to help better understand the ways in which ocean currents work. Many of the containers 28,800 ‘friendly floatees’ are still unaccounted for – if you see one, be sure to make a note of where and when you found it. nnThere are similar stories involving thousands of lego figures swimming across the Atlantic onto the beaches of Cornwall, the result of a ‘1 in 100-year wave’ casting 4.8 million pieces from the decks of a container ship headed for New York. Again this information has been used to help figure out the ways in which the oceans work, with Ebbesmayer at the forefront yet again. In a quirky twist of fate, it just so happens that all the lego was nautically themed, with tiny cutlasses, flippers and life jackets washing up onto the shores. If you do want to go beachcombing, look out for the little black octopus. Apparently, they’re the rarest. nn n

Years on

nIn 2011 marine biologists found a sunken shipping container of the cast of California, deciding to use it as an opportunity to see the impact they had on the ecosystem around them. When they looked closely they found that, despite seven years of being submerged, the bright yellow container was still as good as new! nnOn closer inspection, the container had actually become the home for a number of interesting species, including crabs, octopuses and a large kind of sea snail known as Neptunea lyrata. Of course, nobody can say whether these creatures are welcome or not and if they have any implications for the rest of the ecosystem. nnThe container itself had actually fallen overboard during a storm – in the middle of a designated ocean reserve as it turns out. Instead of removing the container, the company at fault funded the research to make up for their sins, well partially.  nn n

Making the most

nNeedless to say, it’s better for everyone (apart from the odd scientist) when shipping containers make it safely across the ocean. If you’d like to find out more about the benefits of these ocean-proof storage solutions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Unit HIre! Our friendly team of experts would be delighted to guide you in the right direction – don’t worry, there’ll be no getting lost this time.

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