In the inquiries that followed the at-sea hull fracture and subsequent scuttling of the MSC Napoli in early 2007 in the English Channel, investigators discovered a disturbing truth. Of the 660 containers stowed on the deck of the 4,400-TEU vessel on its way from Belgium to Portugal, 137 were grossly over the declared weight by the shipper.
In total, the vessel was carrying more than 300 tons more cargo on deck than the captain and stowage planners believed based on the manifest. “There were a substantial number of substantially overweight boxes,” said Chris Koch, president of the World Shipping Council container line trade group.
This isn’t the fault of Mediterranean Shipping or other carriers whose ships mysteriously list or underperform while at sea, but of the shipper. It’s an old and familiar story; how convenient is it to cram cargo that ought to be in two containers into a single one, saving the cost of the second in the name of efficiency or optimization?
It’s a game many, although certainly not all, shippers play on a regular basis, leading to troubling situations — fireworks stowed near exhaust fans, for instance. Industry officials believe misdeclared weights are rampant throughout the industry. Some carriers say it’s normal for the actual total loaded cargo weight to be 3 to 7 percent greater than that declared by shippers.
But change is likely on the way. There’s work under way to require in the coming years that all containers are weighed at port before loading. The World Shipping Council together with the International Chamber of Shipping has taken the matter to the International Maritime Organization, which accepted it for formal discussion in September, likely to be followed by another meeting in a year, with final adoption possible in 2013.
There appears to be no good reason this shouldn’t happen.
The biggest problem with regulations affecting container flows is that many can add cost without offering commensurate benefit. The classic example is the U.S. Harbor Maintenance Tax; the fee on import containers is meant to pay for maintaining channel depth, but Congress never spends much of the fund.
But a requirement to weigh containers would present no such concerns, and there is some strong precedent for the mandate. It’s been a requirement in the U.S. for as long as anyone can remember that export containers be weighed before loading. Because U.S. export boxes often contain agricultural goods, and they arrive at port in swarms during harvests and are quickly hoisted aboard ship, any hiccups because of weighing would quickly create a bottleneck.
But no such issues arise, as exporters will readily attest. “It is part of the routine that occurs as the containers get checked into the port,” said Terry Bunch, director of logistics and customer service for Rayonier and chairman of the National Industrial Transportation League. “It is not an incremental step in the process and does not typically involve an additional move of the container.”
Trucking companies routinely weigh shipments, and many use forklifts with built-in scales. Airlines slide their cargo containers — admittedly those are smaller than ocean boxes — over scales built into floors.
And there is a lengthy list of inefficiencies, annoyances and outright hazards that overweight boxes can create. Ships can be destabilized if too many overweight boxes are stacked on deck unbeknownst to stowage planners. Stacks of containers on board ships collapse under excessive weight, damaging cargo (I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures). Lashings break at sea, sending containers overboard.
It’s a safety issue for crew and longshore workers; it should be no surprise that container lines and dockworkers are united on the need for a weighing requirement. Restowing can delay vessel departures and undermine loading productivity at the berth, increasing carrier costs. The issues are just as critical on land, where overloaded boxes turn asphalt into dust (ports in Shenzhen and Shanghai recently imposed tougher penalties on overweight boxes for this reason). Containers get rolled if a ship is deemed too heavy to accept additional cargo.
Finally, it’s an environmental issue, because vessels operating at less than optimal efficiency burn more fuel.
The carriers chose to take the matter to the IMO because efforts to educate shippers have failed. Guidelines with unequivocal language — “Never load by weight above the payload limit of the container. Overloading is something which can never be condoned” — have been distributed through shipper groups with no apparent letup in overweight boxes tendered to the carriers.
Objections to a weighing rule come from some transshipment ports, because they would add a step to turning around the container. But that is a manageable objection; a system could be set up to avoid double weighing. It shouldn’t derail what would be an overwhelmingly positive change.