ITOPF – It’s Not Just About Oil


ITOPF is well-known across the shipping industry for providing objective technical advice in the event of an oil pollution incident. Perhaps less well-known is that ITOPF has a range of in-house expertise and can assist Members in pollution incidents involving cargoes other than oil. Examples of this expertise include assisting in spills involving bulk liquid and solid cargoes and also container related incidents.

It’s not just about tankers

In an actual or threated pollution event, ITOPF is an invaluable resource available to all North’s Members. ITOPF can assist in providing an effective spill response and help mitigate any environmental and / or socio-economic damage. The range of ITOPF services includes damage assessment, claims analysis, contingency planning and advisory, training and education and information services. These services can prove critical if the local authorities have limited expertise and experience in dealing with pollution spills.

Perhaps surprisingly, in recent years ITOPF has responded to more pollution incidents involving the bunkers of non-tankers than oil cargo spills from tankers. This coincides with the steady downward trend in tanker spills globally.


It’s not just about oil

Pollution incidents involving oil cargoes and heavy fuel oil bunkers have traditionally had the highest profile in local and international media. Oil spills attract huge media attention and ITOPF’s involvement at the earliest stage can be hugely beneficial. But what about pollution by substances other than oil? They might not have the same impact on the perceptions of the general public and the media but some have the potential the cause environmental harm and directly affect human health. Such incidents also require careful and safe management. ITOPF can help with non-oil pollution, including the following:

Container losses

The loss of containerised cargo from container vessels into the sea is an all-too-regular and regrettable occurrence. By the nature of the container trade, the cargoes inside these boxes vary massively as does the associated pollution risk.  Cargoes range from dangerous goods (DG) such as chemicals, to waste products to materials that outwardly appear more benign, such as plastics. Each has an effect on the marine environment. Chemicals are an obvious marine pollutant but ‘non-hazardous’ plastic feedstocks such as nurdles can adversely affect marine life. A single 40 foot container could container over a billion nurdles. (Nurdles are small plastic pellets about the size of a lentil and billion are used each year in the manufacture of nearly all plastic products).


Over the last 10 years, ITOPF have attended 12 pollution incidents involving coal cargoes. The response differs to that of oil as coal is more likely to sink, takes longer to degrade and can have a high content of heavy metals. This can have a significant impact on marine life.

Chemical bulk cargoes

A chemical spill response can be more difficult and dangerous than an oil spill response. There is a lack of specialist knowledge around the world and chemicals have a huge range of characteristics and behaviours, whereas oil products are largely uniform in properties and behaviour. Consideration also needs to be given to possible reactions with the air, water and other chemicals. The potential risk to human health and loss of life is also high and may not always be immediately apparent.

ITOPF: A reminder

Remember that the ITOPF expertise is not just for:

  • major incidents
  • tanker incidents
  • oil spills.

Inset: About ITOPF

ITOPF, the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, is a non-profit making organisation that provides technical advice in respect of pollution incidents and is funded by the shipping industry via the 13 IG P&I Clubs. Their services are automatically available to all North vessels. Read the 2019 ITOPF Handbook


Author: Catherine Doyle
Deputy Director (Claims)