The Sri Lanka shipping disaster and Canadian consumerism

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The X-Press Pearl before the Sri Lanka disaster. Image credit: Isuruhetti/Wikimedia Commons

As the memes, jokes and cartoons about the massive Ever Given container ship stuck for days in the Suez Canal flooded the internet this spring, for many, it was their first exposure to the sheer size of these ships.

Unless you live by a major port, the chance of actually seeing such vessels is remote.

With some 18,000 containers on board, the Ever Given so dwarfed the boats and equipment trying to free it that the task seemed impossible and added to the humour. After almost a week of effort -- and with other container ships backed up in the Suez Canal -- the Ever Given was finally freed.  

Then, disaster struck elsewhere.

The X-Press Pearl

In mid-May, the X-Press Pearl container ship started leaking acid and then caught fire while anchored off the coast of Sri Lanka. The fire was finally extinguished after 12 days, but then the vessel began sinking. The fire destroyed much of the cargo, but debris started washing ashore -- including tons of plastic pellets (called nurdles) used to make a wide variety of plastic products. 

The X-Press Pearl may have been carrying as much as 86 U.S. tons of nurdles, which have covered the local beaches in wave after wave of plastic. Peter Dykstra has written that this disaster "may be plastic's Exxon Valdez" event – referring to the disastrous 1989 oil spill off the coast of Alaska that occurred when the ship carrying the oil struck a reef.

The photos are horrific, with people in hazmat suits trying to scoop up the nurdles into huge plastic garbage bags, only to be hit with another wave of plastic washing ashore. Dead fish and other sea creatures also litter the beaches, having ingested the nurdles.

The X-Press Pearl was also carrying hazardous chemicals such as nitric acid, epoxy resins, sodium dioxide, copper, ethanol and lead ingots, lubricating oils, and polyethene. The now partially sunken ship's 350 tons of bunker fuel also threaten to contaminate the area.

This is the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lankan history. The region's local fishing industry and tourism industry have been destroyed for years, if not forever, and the repercussions for ocean health are currently unfathomable.

There are some 5,000 container ships like the Ever Given and the X-Press Pearl currently plying the oceans to bring us consumer products we think we need. Global brands rely on them.

Globalization

The first standardized shipping container was introduced in the 1950s, and the first refrigerated container was invented in the 1970s.

Statistics reveal the huge growth of the industry since then. Since 1980, "the deadweight tonnage of container ships has grown from about 11 million metric tons to around 275 million metric tons."

The growth of the container shipping industry over the past forty years mirrors the growth of globalization -- with multinational corporations cutting jobs at home in order to outsource manufacturing to the global south, with its cheap labour, lack of unions and few environmental regulations.

Canada has lost thousands of jobs through such outsourcing. Meanwhile, the natural resources that Canada does still produce (like raw logs) are first shipped overseas to be turned into finished products that are then sold in Canada, having been transported back here by container ships.

The Statista Research Department predicts that by 2026, the container shipping industry market will have almost tripled since 2017.

With so much of world trade conducted by maritime shipping, it shouldn't be surprising to learn that the industry was responsible for about 830 million tones of CO2 emissions in 2019. In a recent report, the International Energy Agency said that the industry would likely miss its target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

The environmental group Stand.earth is also reporting that the shipping industry is responsible for dumping 10 gigatonnes of acidic toxic wastewater into the oceans each year. They explain this happens "through a sneaky device called a 'scrubber,' which literally turns the air pollution from ship exhaust into water pollution. Yet, somehow is still marketed as a 'green alternative' to reduce the air pollution impacts of ships."

Gearing up for its new campaign to take on the cargo industry, Stand.earth recently reminded members that huge multinationals such as Amazon, Ikea, Target, and Walmart rely on container ships for their products. The group sent out a questionnaire asking which of these companies they should take on first to clean up its (shipping) act.

It might be helpful, however, for the rest of us to realize what happens to much of what we buy.

Dirty secret

An astonishing 2017 article by Charles Wilkins, called "Canada's dirty secret" revealed that Canada leads the developed world in garbage production per capita.

Wilkins interviewed Queen's University environmental studies professor Myra Hird.

"We tend to think that if other countries were more like Canada, the planet could be saved," said Hird. "But if every country was like Canada in terms of all-out consumerism and waste, the planet would be even more messed up than it is."

Hird stated further:

"When people think their stuff is being recycled, it clears their conscience, no matter what is actually happening beyond the blue box. Our research shows that when their conscience is clear they tend to consume more than ever. Since Canadians started recycling in earnest maybe 30 years ago, consumerism in this country has done nothing but climb."

But then came the pandemic.

If we learned anything during these past 15 months, it was that a lot of the new stuff we thought we needed, we didn't.

For those of us who refused to shop at big-box stores like Walmart or Costco, or did not want to order online through Amazon, the lesson was simple: if we couldn't repair or repurpose something we already had, then a lot of us learned to get along without it.

In some neighbourhoods during the pandemic, local shops had signs that read: "Buy Local or Bye Local." They were reminding us that choosing to purchase a product made locally rather than from a global brand is an important choice.

If nothing else, perhaps the comedy and tragedy of the Ever Given and the X-Press Pearl can get us thinking about our addiction to consumption -- especially as pandemic lockdowns lift and the urge to "shop 'til you drop" hits.

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca

Image credit: Isuruhetti/Wikimedia Commons

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