What happens to cargo containers from abandoned ships?

cargo containers from abandoned ships

Abandoned ships are a rising concern in the maritime industry as they threaten the environment and endanger valuable marine life. It is also the cause of significant economic losses for many shippers and consignees as their shipment gets lost and is difficult to recover. Owners abandon ships when they suffer a financial crisis of paying off the crew onboard. Seafarers suffer as their source of income is stuck, and they will have to face difficulties retrieving it. Other calamities, such as threats by pirates or terrorists or colliding with icebergs, can also cause the crew to abandon the ship, leading to huge losses. The blog will provide detailed information about the destiny of abandoned containers and ships.

Use of ships in the maritime industry

Goods from the suppliers are designated to the shipping industry for logistics and transportation. Different types of cargo, bulk and non-bulk, are put in separate containers to be loaded on vehicles for intermodal transport internationally and transcontinentally. 

  1. Commercial shipping enables easy international trade and helps in boosting the national economy. As part of the shipping industry, the maritime sector is a transport and logistics facility where goods are transported for trade via sea vessels. 
  2. The ships play a dynamic role in transporting goods and people from one port to another.
  3. After being equipped with technology and digitisation, the ships have become more versatile and productive and are constantly modified and engineered to fit shipping needs. 
  4. The different types of container ships have been modified to aid the seamless flow of goods through various shipping lanes that accommodate channels and canals. 
  5. Ships are responsible for carrying out a significant portion of world trade as it is cost-effective and reliable. 

Automation in the maritime infrastructures has assisted in providing credibility and maximised efficiency to the consumers or stakeholders, leading to increased investments in the maritime industry. Many industries in the trade business heavily rely on the marine sector for cross-border trade, where ships transport goods to the destination port, and the latter part of the delivery is intermodal carried out via roads or rails.

Causes of abandoned ships

Ships make plenty of trips throughout the year, working to deliver goods from one port to the other. After being loaded with shipping containers and seafarers, the owners signal these ships to go on commercial voyages. Under uncertain circumstances, many ships are abandoned and lie like ghost ships for years. A few potential reasons for ship abandonment are-

  1. Owner abandons the ship – On their journey, tension develops when the vessel gets abandoned by the owner. Ship abandonment is a concerning issue in the maritime industry where the seafarers lose contact with the ship’s owner for more than eight weeks. Owners abandon ships for legal or financial reasons. These abandoned ships are either left to dry at the port or anchorage or roaming the sea to find suitable ports. 
  2. The crew abandons the ship– It occurs in emergency cases when due to some faults or disasters, the ship is about to sink. In such cases, the captain has no choice but to save the life of people onboard and, therefore, signals the crew to evacuate the ship. The sinking ship takes all the goods and containers worth millions, leading to a significant loss for the ship owner, shipping company, supplier and receiver.

What happens to abandoned shipping containers?

  1. If the owner abandons the ship– Shipping containers from abandoned ships either reach their destination ports or some other port nearby. Upon reaching the port, the fate of the containers is to be decided by their shipping lines or the freight forwarders if either of them is enlisted as ‘principal’ in the master bill of lading. In such cases, shipping containers are put up for private or public auction if the shipper does not recover the cargo by paying their debts. Abandoned containers and goods may not be in good condition; therefore, during auctions, no customs authority takes a guarantee of any of the stuff put up for auctions.
  2. If the crew abandoned the ships– It is estimated that more than a dozen vessels either sink or get lost at sea annually, sometimes taking the unit down with them. But if the crew senses any disasters or calamities beforehand, they can abandon the ship in time. In such circumstances, the ship’s fate is up to the tides and waves, which may either sink or carry it along before it finally sinks. In all cases, the shipping containers immediately sink to the ocean floor or float on the surface before finally sinking. Container floating occurs for boxes with low-volume cargo that are not heavier enough to sink. Due to their additional buoyancy, reefer containers take even longer to sink. It is tough to extract the containers from ocean beds, and most cargo goes useless, causing considerable losses to shipping companies, shippers and the receiver.

Can abandoned cargo containers at sea be recovered?

After getting abandoned by their crew, the ships run high chances of getting sunk soon enough, or if not, they travel the waves unless they finally get entrapped by the tides. In such cases, if the ship gets traced by rescuers or some other passer-by ship, chances of recovering the cargo containers onboard increase. But in maximum cases, the vessel sinks to the ocean floor, taking along with it all the shipment. If a few containers fall into the sea while the ship struggles to survive on water, the containers remain afloat beneath the ocean surface for days until they rust and get filled with water and ultimately sink. 

It is challenging to recover the containers once they are lost at sea since it is expensive and would require resources to locate the containers and get them onboard some other ship. No shipping company would spend so much; therefore, once the ship gets abandoned, the shipping containers and cargo go down along with the ship. Although if the containers are still afloat, there are slight chances of some other ship recovering them and later auctioning them, the original shipper and shipping company may never get them back.

Environmental Impact of Abandoned Ships 

  1. Oil Leaks– Abandoned ships on both land and sea have leftover fuel, which, if leaked, can lead to environmental damage.
  2. Damage to marine life– Abandoned ships full of equipment and machines sink into the sea with time. The risks of marine animals getting caught up in ropes and nets or injured by rusted machines and equipment increase. Coral reef destruction is also a possibility due to shipwrecks.
  3. Leaching– The ship’s paint and other harmful chemicals get weathered into the environment with time causing potential damage. Heavy metals such as copper and nickel in the ship’s hull leach into water and contaminate the soil below.

Environmental Impact of Abandoned Containers

  1. Congestion– Abandoned shipping containers on ports are a major cause of port congestion as they are unowned and are blocking space without any transportation purpose. It just adds to the number of empty shipping containers standing in ports.
  2. Hazardous cargo– Those containers that sink to the ocean floor are a significant threat as the cargo inside them may be dangerous or radioactive. It may leak or leach into the marine environment, causing massive damage.
  3. Damage to ships passing– When abandoned, if the containers are afloat, sometimes they are beneath the surface of the water and may go unnoticed from above; ships moving at a fast speed may collide with them, leading to ship damage.

The causes of abandoned ships and containers and the repercussions witnessed in the aftermath are quite threatening. Thousands of abandoned ships have sunk, are standing on shores, or floating mindlessly in the sea without purpose. It is a concerning issue to control the cases of ship abandonment and avert the crisis that causes damage to marine ecosystems, financial losses and loss of life.

LOTUS Containers is a leading shipping container company that markets different types of shipping containers across the globe. We have a network with more than 300+ container depots to aid container transportation.

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