Storage containers start out life as shipping containers. Designed as secure containers for all kinds of cargo being shipped across the oceans, they are made to be stacked on top of each other and pinned together at the corners. They ride the waves on the open flat decks of container ships where they are exposed to the weather. Most of the time, container ships make the journey successfully. Occasionally, though, extremely rough seas or other unforeseen circumstances result in the loss of shipping containers.
Sometimes, containers fall off the side of the ship and are lost at sea. Other incidents such as shipboard fires, groundings or collisions can be more serious and may even result in the loss of the ship and all its cargo. It’s important to the safety of the ship that the load is well-balanced and the weights of individual loaded shipping containers are reported accurately. If the weights are inaccurate, the ship may be inadvertently loaded so that one side has much more weight than the other. This can result in the ship listing or even capsizing, especially if it runs into foul weather where wind and waves can magnify any imbalances. The following video shows a number of incidents involving container ships losing cargo, capsizing, or even breaking apart after grounding.
Such incidents, as dramatic as they are, remain rare and affect a very small percentage of the shipping containers each year. Although shipping volumes vary with the global economy, a typical year might see 120 million containers shipped between overseas destinations. That number includes containers that are used for multiple shipments during the course of a year, so perhaps it’s more accurate to say 120 million cargoes are shipped by container in a given year. Of that number, the World Shipping Council estimates that for the years 2011 through 2013, an average of 2,683 shipping containers were lost at sea. That number includes catastrophic events such as the break-up of the M/V Rena off the coast of New Zealand which accounted for 900 lost containers in a single incident. That event, which resulted in the ship being literally broken in half, is shown in the video above.
If we do the math, that’s just about 0.00224% of all container shipments for a typical year or just over 2 thousandths of one percent. That’s a tiny fraction and it varies widely for years when a major catastrophe takes an entire ship and cargo all at once. If we remove just the two largest incidents during those three years (the break-up of the M/V Rena and the loss of the MOL Comfort in the Indian Ocean), then the average number of shipping containers lost in a given year falls to just 733 per year or about 6 ten thousandths of one percent.
For comparison, more than 982,000 automobiles were lost to natural disasters, not including ordinary driving accidents, in the year 2005 (the latest year for which I could find data). Although there’s no specific data available, of we were able to remove avoidable shipping container losses, such as those caused by improper loading and misreporting of weights that result in unstable stacking, the number of losses in any given year would almost certainly drop by at least half.