Sea container cleaning standards

Photo of stacked shipping containers

Sea container hygiene and container external cleanliness standards for the international shipping and forwarding trade to minimise the transmission of exotic pests and diseases to Australia.

This guidance is of particular interest to customs brokers, freight forwarders, transport companies, shipping lines, stevedores and any other operators in the supply and logistics chain that have control of sea containers from the discharge port to delivery.

Sea container hygiene

Sea container hygiene is exactly that – hygiene of sea containers. In this context we are talking about shipping containers, specifically clean shipping containers.

Clean shipping containers are those containers that arrive in Australia free from contaminants and other biosecurity risks.

Biosecurity risk

The practice of biosecurity in Australia means that the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (in partnership with clients, stakeholders and industry) has implemented a set of measures designed to reduce the risk of transmission of exotic pests and/or diseases via import or export pathways. Schemes to ensure sea container hygiene are just one of those measures.

Shipping containers are essentially transport mediums for exotic pests, diseases or other contaminants. Insects can hitchhike to Australia attached to the surfaces of containers or located in the many nooks and crevices available on a shipping container.

Main contaminants on shipping containers

The main types of contaminants found on shipping containers include:

  • Insects – a range of insects can lodge themselves or build nests on shipping containers including ants, wasps, bees, beetles, moths and spiders.
  • Snails – exotic snails such as the Giant African Snail and other snail species are often found on shipping containers.
  • Animals – rodents, geckos and toads are the main vertebrates found in and on shipping containers. Animal matter also found on shipping containers includes animal and bird faeces, bones, skin and hair.
  • Plants – plants can grow on shipping containers if residual seed has been allowed to germinate with or without contaminating soil. Other plant matter found on shipping containers includes leaves and other plant parts.
  • Soil - soil and soil related contaminants, can be found on shipping containers that haven’t been cleaned, or have been managed poorly after cleaning.
  • Fungi – when containers are left in damp, dark conditions fungi and other airborne spores can lodge and grow on the residual soil left on surfaces of a shipping container.

How we check sea containers

Rather than checking every sea container, the department targets containers that pose a higher biosecurity risk or are approaching Australia via a high risk pathway. We do this by:

Photo of officer inspecting a shipping container on a truck
  • inspecting containers from high risk ports e.g. those which have giant African snail or other significant biosecurity pests
  • inspecting or intervening in all containers going to or through rural areas
  • checking containers over particular periods to collect data
  • increasing surveillance around wharf areas and empty container yards for insects and other unwanted pests.

The department has officers at all wharf gates (usually during business hours) inspecting the sides of targeted containers to ensure compliance with container hygiene requirements.

A biosecurity officer looking at a container will visually assess the container, and if contaminants are found, make an instant decision whether the biosecurity officer can remove the contaminant easily and quickly or not.

Biosecurity officers pay particular attention to the following areas:

  • along bottom rails of containers
  • within forklift pockets
  • in and around the twist lock fittings
  • underside and cross members
  • container tops where necessary
Photo of an officer inspecting the top of a container

The department categorises contamination levels on shipping containers into two types, low level contamination and high ​level contamination.

Low level contamination (non-actionable)

Low level contamination can be defined as small amounts of soil of sufficient depth that can be removed immediately or within five minutes, with minimal effort or use of equipment. Containers that have low levels of contamination completely removed from them will be allowed to exit the wharf gate without any further biosecurity intervention at that point.

High level contamination (actionable)

A high level of soil contamination is defined as being of such a depth and quantity that the inspecting biosecurity officer cannot easily remove the soil adhering to the container, is inaccessible, is of a high volume or quantity and is imbedded or attached to a degree that only mechanical (e.g. high-pressure cleaning) methods can be employed to remove the contamination.

Containers with high levels of contamination are directed to an approved arrangement site for treatment or cleaning prior to release back into the import pathway.

How you can help

Measures that can be put in place offshore include:

  • ensuring ports of loading have effective means to clean shipping containers prior to loading (pictured)
  • to minimise the risk of recontamination, ensuring cleaned containers are stored in a clean area prior to loading (see images)
  • ensuring cleaned containers are not re-contaminated in transit to the ship, prior to loading
  • increasing sea container hygiene awareness with overseas clients and offshore container processing facilities.
Photo of an unclean shipping container with soil contamination

Photo of a clean shipping container with no soil

When basic measures are not followed

If shipping containers continue to arrive in Australia contaminated then the highest risk is that an exotic pest or disease will be introduced. When detected at the wharf gate, containers with high levels of contamination will be directed to an approved arrangement site for treatment, or if the risk is considered too great to manage on shore, the container will be re-exported. This will mean delays in delivery and increased costs for the client.

Continual non-compliance on a particular sea cargo pathway will result in increased targeted surveillance and the department’s intervention and/or possible placement on the Country Action List (CAL). Placement on this list means that containers from this pathway undergo 100% mandatory six-sided inspections on arrival.

See also:


Last reviewed: 28 September 2020
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