Right now, as you read this, there are five or six million shipping containers on enormous cargo ships sailing across the world’s oceans. And about every hour, on average, one is falling overboard never to be seen again. It’s estimated that 10,000 of these large containers are lost at sea each year, and our understanding of what happens to them afterwards is scant at best. But that’s changing. This month the Monterray Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) sent a robotic sub to investigate a shipping container that was lost in the Monterrey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 2004. What’s happened to the sunken shipment in the past seven years? It’s become a warren for a variety of aquatic life on the ocean floor, providing a new habitat for species that might otherwise not be attracted to the area. As the MBARI investigation continues to discover the destiny of drowned containers we will undoubtedly learn more about this (possibly) ecologically dangerous byproduct of our modern transportation system. Could a system such as the Internet of Things help prevent the growth of the waste we’re strewing across the seabed? Perhaps. Yet the importance of this situation may be less about the solutions to this one problem, and more about the unexpected consequences that follow the adoption of any technology.
Shipping containers account for about 90% of the non bulk cargo transported in the world. The sunken container MBARI is investigating came off the Med Taipei, a shipping vessel that hit a February storm on the way to LA in 2004. The Med Taipei lost 15 containers on that single voyage, with 21 more damaged. Because one of those containers was found inside the marine sanctuary, the shipping company responsible was sued and forced to pay $3.25 million in compensation. That money is being used to fund the MBARI’s current research on the containers. From March 8th to March 10th, the MBARI team explored the sunken remains of the storage unit, which according to manifest lists held more than a thousand steel belted rubber tires inside of it. While MBARI doesn’t have any good photos of the tires, they have some amazing footage of the outside of the container, which is now covered in ocean organisms. It looks like a miniature reef. Click the video below of an underway expedition via a local news channel as well as from the BBC.
While MBARI knows the location of one of the sunken containers from the Med Taipei, the other 14 are unaccounted for. That’s actually pretty common. Few, if any, of the containers lost from shipping vessels are ever recovered and not many are reported. Unless someone gets hurt, or something lands in a marine sanctuary, there’s no legal repercussions for these losses. The lack of accountability has raised concerns across the globe. The issue was raised at a recent meeting of the European Parliament, whose constituents’ waters gain an estimated 2000 or so new sunken containers every year.
So there’s tens of thousands of containers dropped in the ocean each year…what’s the problem? It’s a big ocean after all, and a few hundred thousand containers are small lumps relatively speaking. Well, about 10% of containers that go overboard are holding household chemicals that could be toxic to marine life.
Beyond that, MBARI is discovering that the containers themselves, even if never breached, change the local environment. Not by much, perhaps, but still a change. Species that might otherwise not find a suitable home can use the container as a habitat. Moreover, we are strewing these artificial habitats along major shipping lanes. Are we building an underwater series of stepping stones for species to migrate across the ocean? Who knows. So far we’ve only explored one of these things. There’s so much more information that we need.
Ignoring ecological concerns for the moment, ten thousand missing containers represent millions in lost revenue for companies. Revenue that might easily be saved if we just upgraded our shipping habits. Containers are rarely weighed before being loaded onto ships, allowing for heavy units to be stacked very high on the ship, encouraging them to be flung overboard. Simple RFID tags that possessed information on inventory, coupled with an estimate of weight, could be attached to each container. Not only would this help the organization of the containers onboard, it would improve inventory tracking in general. Such digital IDs are a key part of the Internet of Things, and we’ve seen companies like IBM looking to use them for shipping in key industries like pharmaceuticals. Eventually, however, digital tracking could be used to upgrade the entire way we ship materials all over the globe.
Even if the Internet of Things cures us of our lost containers woes, there’s still another lesson to be learned from this situation. 5-6 million of these things are in transport at any given time, losing one an hour is actually not that statistically significant. Clearly the shipping companies aren’t too worried about it – they haven’t improved their systems in decades. Financially speaking, these kinds of losses are probably okay to the businesses that use the container technology as well. Perhaps environmental concerns and legal punishments (like the $3.25 million pay out) will change that, but perhaps not. What’s true here for transoceanic shipping is going to be true for many other less mundane technologies. If you’re a corporation, and you’re faced with a system that is 99.99% efficient, you’re probably going to be pretty happy about it. Yet when scaled up to the global scale, that 0.01% could still mean millions in lost revenue and tons of unexpected consequences.
When we start to adopt technologies like genetics, nanotechnology, or artificial intelligence, are we going to be similarly satisfied with 99.99% efficiency? Are we going to extend that out a few more decimal places? No matter how far we push ourselves we’re never going to create a technology that works perfectly all the time. As those awesome but not quite perfect systems get adopted on the global scale, we may face a host of strange and potentially dangerous results arise that we never saw coming. MBARI’s exploration of a sunken container is a great way to learn about ocean life and how we may affect it. But we better be learning the bigger lesson as well – with great technology and great numbers comes really weird side effects. Hope we’re ready.