Lessons from the container spill disaster in the Wadden Sea

Amsterdam, 7 January 2019 — An unprecedently large cleanup effort has already been underway for several days in the Wadden Sea area after the mega-containership MSC Zoe lost 270 containers due to serious weather conditions; several of these containers were filled with poisonous organic peroxide. Beaches in the area are littered with the washed-up mess, which includes a large amount of plastic as well. The military has been called in to help, and the mayors of Schiermonnikoog and Vlieland will have the damage covered by the shipowner. The shipping company is ensured, but environmental damage can never be precisely determined, which makes securing compensation difficult. Can lessons from this environmental disaster already be drawn on how to prevent similar incidents from occurring the future?
The unclear status of  “good environmental health”
Next year, the “good environmental status” of the North Sea, a provision set forth by the Dutch government, must be reached. This means that the north sea must be clean, healthy, and productive. Is this goal achievable? The governmental policy is focused on the top 10 most commonly found items on beaches. Items such as lint, pieces of plastic and polystyrene foam, plastic bottle caps, plastic bottles, and balloons are being “tackled” by being put on the agenda, awareness raising, cleanups, and green deals. The Dutch government is working on this through voluntary compliance mechanisms, meaning there is no binding legislation or enforcement thereof. Preventing the dumping of containers, for example, is not part of their policy. The current goal to achieve a healthy environmental status should, therefore, be tightened up — but how?
Ban polystyrene as a packaging material
Materials that wash up on beaches can, for the most part, be cleaned up, albeit with a great deal of effort. The same is not true for polystyrene, which is commonly used as packaging material; cleanup is nearly impossible. Polystyrene, also known as styrofoam, blows away easily and crumbles into smaller and smaller pieces very rapidly. White polka dots of styrofoam will be found in the Wadden area for many years. The European Union has already forbidden several single-use plastic products, including food trays made from the infamous Styrofoam, but nothing has been done about Styrofoam in general as a packaging material. The Dutch government should make the case for a complete ban on styrofoam for packaging, either within a European context or without.
More stringent rules for container shipping
In January of 2017, a container containing thousands of plastic Kinder Surprise eggs washed onto the German Wadden Island Langeoog. Containers such as these fall overboard regularly. According to the research institute of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, 10,000 containers end up in the ocean every year. The lost cargo is disseminated through sea currents and contributes to the plastic soup. It is therefore extremely necessary to impose more stringent regulations on transport containers: for example, a lower limit on the hight to which containers can be stacked would make a big difference. This can be arranged through the International Maritime Organizations (IMO) The problem of lost containers has been relevant for decades and urgently needs to be tackled. Is the Netherlands prepared to feature this issue prominently on the agenda for the upcoming London meeting of the IMO’s environmental commission, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC)? Let this disaster be the catalyst for solving the problem for container loss once and for all.
A quote from Maria Westerbos, Director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “This major environmental disaster on the Wadden Sea must be translated into motivation for the Dutch government to implement additional measures and impose more stringent requirements on the transportation of containers, especially if they contain toxic substances.”
Photo: Municipality of Ameland