COLUMN | Responsibility to carry [Grey Power]

Firefighters attempt to extinguish the blaze on the containership X-Press Pearl off Colombo Sri Lanka. The fire ignited on May 20, 2021, and the ship sank 12 days later. (Photo: Sri Lanka Ports Authority)

If you refuse to carry cargo that you disapprove of, are you being responsible and ethical, or, in the words of the old saying, cutting off your nose to spite your face?

It is a question provoked by the decision of the huge container carrier CMA CGM to stop carrying plastic waste around the world. The cargo, properly regulated, is not illegal, but it is at least arguable that it is a trade that is severely flawed in ethical terms, as there have been too many reports of this stuff ending up in landfills in developing countries, which appear to be treated by the more prosperous parts of the world as little more than a dump.

The decision is not without its pain to the carrier, because for some years it has been a growing business that in some way serves to erode the acute east-west trade imbalance and helps to fill up a lot of empty eastbound boxes. It may well be the case that the shippers of this horrible stuff will get very angry and merely shift their trade to other carriers who are less concerned about the ethics.

“You don’t have to be a card-carrying eco-fanatic to suggest that there is no reason why this stuff should ever have to embark on the high seas.”

I can recall that many years ago the company I sailed with tried very hard to stop a chemical company shipping a product that was inadequately packed and if it leaked, would seriously contaminate the holds of our ships, causing a fortune to remedy. But this was a major shipper and by threatening to take all their considerable business elsewhere, it simply forced our company to back down. If it was legal, you were jolly well obliged to carry the stuff.

But there is a degree of public revulsion in many developed countries against treating the developing world as a repository for its waste, and you don’t have to be a card-carrying eco-fanatic to suggest that there is no reason why this stuff should ever have to embark on the high seas. Surely it should be treated wherever the waste is generated, even if it might cost a little more. It is not just one of these fruitless arguments about the problem of “transport miles” and their effect upon the environment that seem to be constantly surfacing these days.

Plastic waste is indeed a very big deal and we are being forced to consider more environmentally acceptable alternatives for packaging our goods and that is surely a good thing. But there are other cargoes that have become very large and have demonstrated quite severe environmental harm in the event that they end up in the sea. There are now, for instance, demands that plastic feedstock, in the form of tiny balls, should be categorised as hazardous cargo simply because of the mess they make if they are spilt.

It is one of these products which appeared perfect harmless, although it was increasingly being carried internationally in growing quantities. But a number of accidents, with containers being lost overside, along with a few serious shipwrecks, have made people aware of this menace to the marine environment. The containership that piled up on the New Zealand coast some years ago, when taking a short cut to Tauranga, lost several boxes that were carrying these little plastic balls, which were carried up and down the coast for many miles by tides and weather. They are a nightmare to recover and quickly find themselves entering the food chain after being eaten by fish and other sea creatures.

“A ban on these products, sadly, would probably be a step too far.”

More recently, the fires and explosions that wrecked the X-Press Feeders vessel off the coast of Sri Lanka also saw a large number of these tiny spheres released among all the rest of the wreckage that spewed out of the vessel. Granted that this raw plastic is an important component of all manner of useful products, it is at least valid to ask whether it should be transported in a more environmentally safe form? Should it be carried at all, because even if it was on the dangerous cargo manifest, this would not stop it entering the sea should the ship, or the container, be lost?

It will be interesting to see whether the CMA CGM stance on plastic waste will be followed by other major carriers. Some might suggest that the management of this company is merely “virtue signalling”, but with the eyes of an environmentally conscious public now on the shipping industry, care of COP26 and growing general awareness, the company is probably reading the runes of public opinion quite correctly. The recent announcement that the Ofer family-controlled Eastern Pacific Shipping was turning its back on the carriage of coal aboard its bulkers, in response to the decision to phase out this cargo at the Glasgow climate change talks, might be thought of as more evidence of this trend.

It might be asked whether, if it is deemed sensible to ban the carriage of certain cargoes for environmental reasons, carriers should also be taking a look at some of the products that have shown themselves to be hazardous to people who actually work on these ships and find themselves in deadly danger after the contents of containers catch fire or explode. Cheap but hazardous stuff like charcoal, or calcium hypochlorite, for instance. But it’s not the environment that is at risk with such cargo, so a ban, sadly, would probably be a step too far.

Michael Grey

Maritime industry legend, and former long-term editor of Lloyds List, Michael Grey kicks off each month with topical issues affecting the maritime world at large.