Major oil spill disasters hit the global environment especially hard in 2021 and the year is not over: In October, an oil spill happened off the coast of California when a dragged anchor ruptured a pipeline. In July, a Japanese cargo ship became grounded and broke up off the coast of Mauritius, sending tons of oil into waters that are home to fragile coral reefs. A few weeks earlier, the Singapore-registered cargo ship, X-Press Pearl, caught fire and sank near Sri Lanka, spilling oil and nitric acid into Sri Lankan waters in what will prove to be a major environmental disaster with long-term consequences.
According to a special report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), some spills are far worse than others. In the case of the Sri Lankan oil and chemical spill, small plastic pellets that take thousands of years to degrade were spilled in addition to over eighty containers of hazardous chemicals. The plastic pellets, called nurdles, have already flooded beaches and been found in fish stomachs.
Once oil reaches a shoreline or spreads widely at sea, the cleanup becomes far more costly and difficult. Even in the best scenarios, UNEP reports that “only 40% of oil from a spill can be cleaned up by mechanical means.” Considering this reality, the UNEP report emphasizes that ways must be explored to enhance nature’s inherent ability to recover from man-made oil spills.
The takeaway from the UNEP report is clear. As the Sri Lanka case clearly demonstrates, governments and oil industry stakeholders must have better preparedness plans in place to deal with the increased risks involved with a growing container shipping trade and the hazardous products it onboards.