Planet Container: How modern shipping transformed our world

But who looks behind a television now and sees the ship that brought it?  Who cares about the man who steered your breakfast cereal through winter storms?  How ironic that the more ships have grown in size, the less space they now take up in our imagination. Ninety Percent of Everything, Rose George

On June 14th last year a ship was named at the Daewoo shipyard in Okpo, South Korea. As far as I know there were no royals there, but the launch of the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller is an important landmark in shipping history. Ane Mærsk Mc-Kinney Uggla, the youngest daughter of the late Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, the Danish shipping magnate after whom the ship was named, did the honours:

As you sail the waters of the world, may your journeys be smooth and your tasks successful. May you bring happiness to your crew, may you be a safe haven for all who board you and may you bring pride and prosperity to all. I wish you Godspeed!”

What is so special about this vessel? The ship which has the largest cargo capacity in of any ship yet constructed, is the longest ship in service worldwide as of 2013. It is 399 metres long and can carry up to 18,270 containers. It’s not just about size though. The ship is characterised for its energy efficiency and environmental performance. Its maximum speed of 23 knots reduces her fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 20% compared to the previous most efficient cargo vessel. Maersk are planning to phase in 20 identical vessels over the next couple of years. During normal operations, she will be manned by a crew of just 19.

container ships

We have, of course, been shipping goods for millennia. But what has been taking place in the last half century is on a totally unprecedented scale. And we have one invention to thank for that. Malcolm McLean, a visionary trucking executive, developed the first container specification in 1955. He went on to found Sea-Land Service, whose SS Ideal X, a converted World War II oil tanker, would become the first commercially successful container ship. During her first voyage on April 26, 1956 the Ideal X carried 58 containers from Port Newark, New Jersey, to Port of Houston, Texas. After five days it arrived in Texas, where 58 trucks were waiting to be loaded with the containers. Modern container shipping had been born. The patent was “given” to the world for free in order to increase adoption. In recognition for his massive contribution to world shipping McLean was named “Man of the Century” by the International Maritime Hall of Fame.

The standard container is a box that is 8ft wide by 8ft tall by 20ft or 40ft long. They are generally made of 2mm thick corrugated steel, but other materials like aluminium, fibreglass or plywood can also be used. The external corners are designed for easy stacking and lifting, using a standardised twist-lock mechanism. What’s more they are multi-modal; they can be transported from a ship to a truck to a train. It seems such a simple idea. Yet it would soon revolutionise the global supply chain.

How are goods transported these days? Cargo that used to arrive in assorted cartons, crates, bales, barrels or bags now comes in factory sealed containers. It is impossible to tell what is in each unit. The only clue is the ID number, which is used to track the progress of its contents around the world. The design of the ships is also different. Gone are all the individual hatches, holds and dividers of the traditional general cargo vessel. Nowadays, the hull of a typical container ship is like a huge warehouse divided into cells by vertical guide rails. It is here where the containers are stored. Every single cargo, be it t-shirts, laptops or plastic ducks, can be handled by exactly the same cranes. Algorithms and computer systems help plan the most efficient and practical storage schemes. All this means the ships can get in and out of port quickly.

As well as reducing the time it takes to ship goods around the world, containerization has slashed the cost of shipping, making it practically free. This has been one of the principal motors of international trade. This is the frictionless world economists like to talk about. Before the container you had to pay a lot to actually transport anything. So it wasn’t really worth your while financially to transport something when most of your profits would be eaten up by transport costs

The logistics of the shipping industry are staggering. 90% of everything we wear, eat and consume is carried by ships, many of them container ships like the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller. There are more than 100,000 ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live. It is estimated that there were more than 530 million containers in the world in 2010. Such is the precision of the tracking system that a two-week voyage can be timed for arrival with an accuracy of less than a quarter of an hour. This has been a boon for guaranteed delivery and just in time manufacturing. Raw materials arrive in sealed containers less than an hour before they are needed in the production process. And such is the efficiency as a method of transport that it actually makes more sense to send Scottish salmon to China to get filleted and then bring it back and refreeze it and sell it. It is containerisation that explains the fact that 90% of flip flops are made in China. Indeed it is the Asian superpower which has benefitted from this revolution. It is impossible to understand China’s role as the world’s workshop without the shipping container. It should be no surprise to discover where the busiest container port in the world is located – ShanghaiChina handles 29,069,000 containers annually.

This revolution has not been all plain sailing. Not until 1961 did the International Standards Organisation finalise global standards for containers. Ports, railways and shippers baulked at the cost of developing the ports and railway infrastructure needed to handle container ships and for the movement of containers on land by rail and road. Trade unions were worried about massive job loss among port and dock workers at ports, as containers were sure to eliminate several manual jobs of cargo handling at ports. Their fears have been confirmed.

This illustrates the fact that no invention is all positive. There is no doubt that working on a container ship is a hard life. In this container age the majority of the sailors are from countries like the Philippines. But compared to what they could earn in their own countries the salaries are probably not so bad. The anonymity of the container has made it the vehicle of choice for smuggling narcotics, tobacco and even humans. We cannot overlook the ecological impact. It is estimated that between 2,000 & 10,000 containers a year fall off ships and are lost at sea. In 1992 a container with 28,800 Bath Toys fell into the Pacific Ocean. This incident was chronicled by Donovan Hohn in his 2011 book Moby Duck:

From a low-flying plane on a clear day, the packages would have looked like confetti, a great drift of colourful squares, exploding in slow motion across the waves. Within twenty-four hours, the water would have dissolved the glue. The action of the waves would have separated the plastic shell from the cardboard back. There, in seas almost four miles deep, more than five hundred miles south of Attu Island at the western tip of the Aleutian tail, more than a thousand miles east of Hokkaido, the northern extreme of Japan, and more than two thousand miles west of the insular Alaskan city of Sitka, 28,800 plastic animals produced in Chinese factories for the bathtubs of America—7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks—hatched from their plastic shells and drifted free.

There are other ecological costs. I have heard that the carbon footprint is similar to that of the airline industry. What is less known is the acoustic pollution from the noise of the engines and the propellers. This can be a huge problem for whales, which survive by communicating with sound. Some humpback whales now have 10% of their acoustic range.

I realise that that there are problems, but I think on the whole the container has made the world a better place. I find this miracle of modern logistics truly amazing. Trade is a force for good. Millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty thanks to global trade. I am sure that ships in the future will be more ecological. So, I think we should all raise a glass to Malcolm McLean, one of the unsung heroes of our modern globalised world.


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