How to recover lost shipping containers?

Maritime professionals locating and recovering lost shipping containers in ocean waters

Hundreds of shipping containers get lost at the sea manually. The impact of lost shipping containers is so significant that it becomes crucial to recover them. Once lost in the sea, containers may float on the ocean surface or sink. In both cases, it ends up harming the marine ecosystem. Shipping parties, including the importer, exporter, and shipping company, also incur significant financial losses. Therefore, it is essential to recover lost shipping containers by following proper container loading, container inspection, and stowage plans is essential to ensure that the containers on board are secure and reach their destination port safely.  

Maritime shipping of containers 

A significant amount of cargo imported and exported across international borders is managed through transit via sea routes. Traders opt for maritime shipping as a cost-effective and timely long-distance transit. For this, they may hire 3PL or 4PL service providers who lend their expertise and services to transport the goods to their destination without hassle. Goods are packed inside shipping containers and are then transported to ports. Containers meant for transportation on vessels reach the container yard via trucks or rails and are prepared for loading onto containerships. It is essential to maintain the lifespan of shipping containers used for sea transport as they are exposed to water and moisture at all times. By following the maintenance tips for shipping containers, shipping companies and container owners can retain containers for longer.

Upon reaching the port facility, cargo is inspected for documentation and goes through customs clearances before the gate out time in the container yard. Once the scheduled vessel arrives at the port, the designated shipping containers are taken out onto the quay with the help of forklifts and cranes.  

Automated shipping ports have fixed paths to allow easy and seamless movement of containers to the quay without human interference. The freight containers are loaded onto ships following a container stowage plan. The containers are arranged in stacks and interconnected to each other using container lashing to prevent containers from falling. Containers are fixed in their places with the help of lashing rods, and screw tightened to ensure they do not get displaced from their position. But in various worst-case scenarios, containers can shift from their places and fall off the containership into the ocean.  

Can containers get lost at sea?  

Yes, shipping containers during voyages are prone to many potential risks, such as piracy, cyber threats, collisions, etc. One of the many potential risks is shipping containers falling off the container deck. Ships outbound for long-distance trade navigate through international waters for a significant duration. Any changes in the weather, such as thunderstorms, tsunamis, unfavourable wind directions, or high tides, can lead to extreme turbulence in the water, causing the balance of the ship to oscillate. Containers are always organised into large stacks pulled together by container lashing. If the stacks break off, the shipping containers may fall into the sea. While some remain floating on the ocean surface, others sink to the ocean floor based on the cargo weight inside. This can be dangerous to the marine environment if the authorities fail to recover lost shipping containers not removed from the ocean within time. 

Impact of shipping containers on marine life 

  1. Container paint can chip off and harm marine animals as it is mainly composed of lead to prevent container rusting.  
  2. If the containers are abandoned in the ocean, they will eventually rust and develop wear and tear. Marine animals can get cuts or fatal injuries if they brush against the rusted container parts.  
  3. Container packing materials such as dunnage, nets, or plastic can be released into the water, trapping marine animals.  
  4. If the shipping container is stuffed with hazardous materials such as petroleum or chemicals, it will cause the worst damage to the soil environment. Oil spills from tank containers accumulate on the ocean surface, preventing sunlight from reaching the ocean bed. It damages marine plants.  
  5. Containers floating on the ocean surface may not be visible to vessels passing by. The risk of collisions increases, and vessels may suffer significant damage. 

Therefore, recovering lost shipping containers from the sea instead of abandoning them is essential.  

What are the reasons for shipping container loss?  

Several human factors have been a critical cause for losing shipping containers at sea. Ships lose hundreds of shipping containers annually, most of which go unrecovered from the ocean. A few causes for shipping container loss are –  

  1. Lack of contain stowage planning– Containers are loaded onto vessels systematically and planned to be placed according to the size and weight of containers. It helps in space utilisation on the containership and making effective container stacks. Sometimes, shipping companies overload the vessel with more containers than the ship can accommodate. It leads to improper balance of vessels in turbulent waters that may cause the vessel to topple.  
  2. Inaccurate container weight declaration– Shippers or logistics service providers may deliberately record inaccurate cargo specifications, such as weight or volume, to save shipping rates. It leads to wrong container stowage plans. If these heavy shipping containers are placed on a higher level in the container stack, there is a high chance that they will fall once the ship is out on a voyage.  
  3. Improper container lashing– Workers must ensure proper container lashing so the containers do not slip or shift from their position during their voyage. If the containers are not adequately lashed, they run risks of toppling down and impacting other containers, causing multiple containers to fall off the board.

      Use of container tracking technology 

      The container tracking technology helps facilitate supply chain visibility by tracking the movement of cargo containers.  

      1. RFID– The radio frequency identification technology is used by ports and shipping companies to track the movement of shipping containers during their voyage. RFID tags are attached to the containers, which the RFID reader can intercept. These intelligent labels work on radio frequency signals and convey the container’s whereabouts to the shipping party.  
      2. GPS– Global positioning system is another container tracking technology that uses satellite navigation to track the shipping container. The GPS devices are mounted on the container to signal the software regarding the container’s location.  
      3. IoT– The Internet of Things is a tracking technology that uses IoT sensors to offer real-time data about the shipping container. IoT in shipping helps in transmitting information about the movement and condition of cargo containers across the supply chain.  

        What is the process of container recovery?  

        Recovery of lost shipping containers from the sea is complex and challenging. It was difficult to locate and recover shipping containers manually, but with the advancements in container tracking technology, it has become easier to recover lost shipping containers. Cargo containers carrying goods that cannot significantly harm the environment almost end up staying in the ocean. The cargo insurance covers the cost of loss and damage. Although the importer, exporter, and shipping company undergo financial losses. A response action is taken if the containers are loaded with hazardous materials and are more prominent in number.  

        1. Information sharing– The concerned maritime authorities, shipping companies, salvage experts, and agencies concerned with environmental protocols are informed about the loss of containers.  
        2. Locating lost containers– Using container tracking technology such as GPS, the shipping company must immediately identify and confirm the location of the containers. Any other vessel passing by the site can also report the whereabouts of the containers.  
        3. Container assessment– It is necessary to know the contents of the container, their weight and their impact on the environment. It helps in risk assessment and evaluating potential environmental damage the containers can cause.  
        4. Notifying officials– The coast guards and other authorities are informed about the location of the incident, the range where the container can be found, container specification, and potential risks.  
        5. Coordinate with salvage companies– These companies are experts and experienced in carrying out maritime recovery operations. Salvage experts assess the situation and draft recovery plans, which are then deployed by the salvage company with the necessary resources.  
        6. Sending ROV– Salvage vessels are sent to the incident location to recover shipping containers. They use remote-operated vehicles (ROVs), specialised devices equipped with cameras and sensors. These devices are submerged into the sea to carry out underwater inspections. They also have manipulator arms that help attach rigs or lift. 
        7. Lifting techniques– Once the containers are located, the salvage officials determine the lifting technique based on the depth of the location of the container, its condition, and its content. Standard techniques include cranes, grappling hooks, or specialised equipment. 
        8. Environmental risk mitigation– In case of oil spills, procedures are conducted to remove the toxic substances from the ocean surface and clear the marine ecosystem. The area is monitored to ensure no aquatic life has been harmed and to assess the damage caused.  
        9. Post-recovery steps– If the shipping company has claimed the container and is handling the containers; it will be sent to them after proper documentation. Otherwise, the containers are inspected, cleaned and disposed of properly.  

          This is how salvage companies recover lost shipping containers in the sea to prevent significant damages caused to the marine ecosystem and avoid navigational issues caused by floating shipping containers in the sea.  

          LOTUS Containers is a marketer of shipping containers of different types. We have partnered with more than 300 container depots to sell and lease shipping containers across the globe. You can buy used shipping containers based on your shipping needs by contacting us.

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