I’m afraid this is likely to be a long contribution, I hope it is useful:
There are a few points in this thread.
FYI - One small fact for context, a Standard 20ft Shipping Container or TEU (Twentyfoot Equivalent Unit : 40ft = 2TEU in the lingo) costs between $3500 and $4000 to manufacture a few years back - probably slightly more these days.
[B]Tracking[/B]: Tracking every container as a matter of course in order to mark the very small percentage that ever actually find themselves in the sea is prohibitively expensive. Shippers typically have many thousands of containers spread across the world, so anything installed into a container must be able to be left unserviced and able to operate for the lifetime of the container (typically 12-15 years!).
So perhaps charging a tracker via solar cell, or a water activated solution you might say? Possibly… but a GPS tracker needs a GPS mast to speak to - I’m only a few miles from my nearest mast and my mobile signal is almost non-existent! If you’re looking at Satellite tracking - remember you’re talking about [I]sending[/I] to a satellite, not just receiving - thats even more expensive in both equipment and power terms.
Trackers are used sometimes by customers with high value goods or by Coastguard Agencies to mark hazards. The legalities of marking will become much tighter in April 2015 when the Wreck Removal Convention (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/8/schedule) comes into effect, but the requirement is only for the reporting of any loss and potentially the mapping and marking of “wrecks” (basically anything lost at sea - including ships!) - more on this in a moment.
A usable GPS Tracker available on the market today would cost around $150 - sorting out the charging issue would cost more, monitoring and reporting to other shipping still more… So tracking is possible but unlikely ever to happen on every container out there purely on the basis that 99…% will never ever be used - and you can’t choose which ones fall overboard!
[B]Floatation Devices[/B]: Hmm, it is thought about half of the containers lost overboard sink immediately due to weight or damage. These containers are already in the water doing whatever damage they are going to do - the fact that they are no longer on the surface means that they are no longer a hazard to other shipping - one less, but vital thing! Re-floating them would create more of a problem - also see above argument on cost and equipment requirements.
Obviously not losing them overboard in the first place would be the best outcome and the Industry is doing all sorts of things to reduce numbers of containers lost in this way. This includes better fixings, better training and rules requiring weighing containers to ensure there isn’t a fully loaded container on top of a stack of empty ones (which does happen!). Meanwhile the WSC has recently quadrupled it’s “estimate” of the number of containers lost at sea annually (av.675 lost 2008/10 up to av.2683 lost 2011/13 - http://www.worldshipping.org/industry-issues/safety/Containers_Lost_at_Sea_-_2014_Update_Final_for_Dist.pdf).
So half of the containers lost sink where dropped and thus remove themselves as floating hazards - the other half remain floating with the winds and tides, for an indeterminate amount of time. They are often reported as floating just beneath the surface, which is not actually possible - ask any diver. Floating “very low” in the water is more usually the case - either way they are all but invisible to other craft, especially at night.
Some of these containers may only sink when broken up in a collision or by being dashed against rocks - a container full of pre-inflated footballs for example (I know!) will never sink otherwise - the rest float mainly because of the integrity of the container. Containers aren’t watertight - they often have ill-fitting seals and all have open vents along the top, but there are no holes at their base and there is only a door at one end. So there is a very large part of the container that will normally not be able to let water in, or air out.
[B]Sinking:[/B] I don’t know if I’m allowed to mention my interest on this Site - so to be safe I won’t - but I believe that sinking floating containers as fast as possible (if possible) is the best solution. It’s really cheap to do (a few $s) and therefore is much more likely to be taken up by the Industry. The ethics of sinking floating containers have been researched by one of Europe’s most respected Environmental groups - the outcome being: It would of course be better not to lose containers in the first place, but given that we are where we are, removing them from the surface where they can do much more damage, whilst also containing whatever potential pollutant within the container for potential future recovery is on balance the best option.
[B]Why is nothing being done?[/B] Well simply, there was no downside for the Shippers. The containers are insured and their ships aren’t affected if they hit a floating container - why would they spend extra on what they see as an effectively altruistic item. Meanwhile, until recently all of the shipping companies were in dire straits financially, they are still only really in the recovery stage. Any extra expense (even the odd $!) per container magnifies into a major bill when you realise they have tens/hundreds of thousands of boxes, so with no obvious “upside” it was out of the question.
There was also the comment, accompanied by a wink, made by one of the major shipping companies Execs: “(Sinking containers cheaply, brilliant idea - love it…)…but of course [I]we [/I]don’t need to do that because [I]we[/I] don’t lose any containers from [I]our[/I] ships” - non-mandatory reporting has always been an issue, admitting there is even a problem makes the Industry look bad.
[B]HOWEVER[/B]! There is a chink of light out there on the horizon:
Up until now there has been no economic argument for Shippers to do anything about this problem, once a container is dropped in the sea just reporting the loss, let alone investing in doing anything about it has made no sense! The containers are insured and there is nothing a ship can do to retrieve anything dropped - Most boxes are lost in major storms when the crew can’t even get on deck!
A couple of things have happened recently that should change all of this:
[B]Firstly[/B]: The Wreck Removal Convention 2011 puts a legal requirement on Shippers to report and (if possible) mark anything they drop in the sea (i.e. a “wreck”). They will now be legally responsible for their “wrecks” - anywhere in the world.
[B]Secondly:[/B] The French and Spanish, fed up with the lack of Industry action, recently took unilateral action to protect their fishing fleets and grounds. This summer France required one of the major shipping companies to go and find/map the many hundred containers they lost in the Bay of Biscay earlier in the year.
Using industry standard software to calculate the search area they faced; given the rough position, date and conditions when these containers were lost and because, one of them washed ashore in UK 96hrs later, using just the 96hr time line - the resulting area was +/-9000nm[SUP]2[/SUP]! That’s about a third of the main area searched in the Indian Ocean for the Malaysian Airlines plane, it covers the Bay of Biscay and Southern English Channel - not to mention thousands of miles of coastline!
Searching such an area with a Survey Ship using side scanning sonar is not cheap at all! Far better if they knew that the majority of the containers lost had sunk within 12 hours (which is possible with those few $s) - this would have reduced the search area and, by extension, the bill by potentially up to 94%! (500nm[SUP]2)[/SUP]
The US Coastguard and even the UK have been considering similar action to the French and Spanish and now it seems the Industry is beginning to sit up and take notice - this is a problem that will soon start costing Shippers dearly if they do nothing!
Suddenly there is a pretty compelling economic argument for doing something. Watch this space!
If you got this far - sorry to be so long winded and thanks for bearing with me - I hope it was informative.