The fate of the MSC Napoli, which beached off the coast of Devon in January 2007, serves as a reminder that ordinary people never think about shipping containers except when things go wrong. The Napoli has caused an environmental crisis (200 tonnes of oil have leaked into surrounding waters), and led to a realisation that some British people are eager to help themselves to other people’s belongings. The ship disgorged a variety of cargo – shampoo and steering wheels, wine and shoes, carpets and motorbikes, and bibles and nappies – and many people went down to the beach to help themselves from the dozens of containers that were washed up on the beach.
Under a bullet-grey sky at Felixstowe, the UK’s largest container port, it is easy to grasp why nobody pays much attention to the transport system that provides Britain with 95% of all imported goods. Where ports once seethed with life – the shops, trades-people, pubs and brothels dependent on regular passing crews – Felixstowe, with its strict security controls, feels all but abandoned.
The mountains of containers, painted in browns, blues, oranges and greens, make for a desolate, yet awe-inspiring landscape. The giant gantry cranes, which sweep the containers on or off the waiting ships with grace, are mesmerising to watch, except that there is almost nobody there to watch. The few drivers and crane operators present are following the instructions of a computer which has calculated the precise order in which the containers should be moved and stacked for maximum efficiency, so that a single container’s journey from ship to waiting lorry is as short as possible and no truck drives anywhere empty when it could be carrying something. In Rotterdam, Europe’s busiest port, the scene is even more ghostly; the vehicles moving the containers from the stacks on the ground to the waiting cranes are driverless, piloting themselves even through thick fog using infra-red technology.
Everything that happens on the dockside at Felixstowe, and each one of the nearly 200m container movements that take place globally each year, owes its existence, ultimately, to Malcolm McLean, a truck driver from North Carolina. In the late 1930s McLean started growing frustrated watching New Jersey dockworkers slowly unloading each crate of timber from his vehicle and winching it on to a waiting ship, where more workers would be on hand to make sure it was securely packed. This method, known as break-bulk shipping, was labour intensive, and an open invitation to theft. Why not, McLean wondered, just use the entire truck trailer itself as the container?
These days “a 35-tonne container of coffee makers can leave a factory in Malaysia, be loaded aboard a ship, and cover the 15,000km to Los Angeles in 16 days,” writes the economist Marc Levinson in The Box, his book about the containerisation revolution. “A day later, the container is on a unit train to Cincinnati. The 18,000km trip from the factory gate to the Ohio warehouse can take as little as 22 days, a rate of 800km a day, at a cost lower than that of a single first-class air ticket. More than likely, no one has touched the contents, or even opened the container, along the way.”
The containerisation revolution destroyed unions, eliminated whole job categories and decimated waterfront communities. A sailor arriving at Felixstowe is lucky if he gets a couple of hours to play pool, drink a beer or check his email in the dockside Seafarers’ Centre before heading back to sea. In ports where traditions persist, the devil finds work for idle hands. “At the port at Brasilia, stevedores are paid to go on board and do nothing,” says David Crinnion, who investigates thefts from containers on behalf of Thomas Miller, the world’s largest shipping insurer. “The law in Brazil says they have to be there, even though the unloading operation is automated.”
The crackdown after 9/11 has made the system more secure – every container that comes into Felixstowe is scanned for radiation – but there are still enormous gaps that some fear could be exploited by terrorists. “At current staffing and funding levels, US coastguard personnel can thoroughly inspect only about 5% of the 9m shipping containers that arrive at US ports every year,” a report by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations concluded.
As the events off the Devon coast have demonstrated, the seamless efficiency of container shipping does not mean that other things do not go wrong, either. Each year somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 containers are estimated to fall overboard, where they float low in the water, forcing small craft and sometimes even cruise ships to swerve to avoid them. “Every year a few vessels are sunk by containers,” says Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the Seattle oceanographer, who became famous when he began using thousands of pairs of spilt Nike trainers to track sea currents. “But the owners can’t prove the case, because the container itself is nowhere to be found, so they don’t have a serial number to trace it. You might as well say you’d struck a whale.”
The environmental hazards can also be significant. “Losing a couple of thousand containers a year is a pretty remarkable achievement when you’re dealing with the ocean, and with hundreds of millions of containers shipped overseas each year. But on the other hand, one container can be catastrophic: it might hold 5m plastic shopping bags.”
Increasingly, the containers that crane operators haul on to ships leaving Britain are empty because of the imbalance between imports and exports: a container arriving full of goods from China has a 75% chance of leaving with nothing inside. Operators will accept almost any payment to transport items in the unpopular, China-bound direction. As a consequence, many of the containers leaving Britain that are not empty are full of waste materials, shipped to China for recycling, where they have been blamed for exacerbating disease and pollution.
Adapted from an article by Oliver Burkeman, Guardian Weekly.
Before reading the text, see if you can answer the following questions. You do not need to write the answers. If possible, discuss with another student. It does not matter if you cannot answer them properly; the purpose is to get you thinking about the topic.
- When we are thinking of shipping, what exactly is a container?
- Do you know roughly when they were introduced?
- What is the advantage of a container?
- How have they changed the way that goods are handled?
- What are some of the disadvantages of containerised freight?
- What kinds of jobs increased and what kinds decreased due to containerization?
Before reading the text in detail, scan the text and find the significance of these figures and names.
- 200 tonnes
- Malcolm McLean
- Marc Levinson
- 16 days
- 22 days
- David Crinnion
- 5% of 9 million
- between 2,000 and 10,000
- Curtis Ebbesmeyer
Activity 3 – read text silently.
Pay particular attention to these key words:
beached — disgorged — seethed — awe-inspiring — gantry cranes
eliminated — decimated — imbalance — exacerbating — desolate
Complete the sentences below using the above words:
- The doctor found that there was an …… in his diet and he was consuming far too much salt and sugar.
- The area south of the port was made up of mud and reeds and was quite …… except for the cry of birds.
- The American soldiers went in to many Iraqi homes looking for militants but it was clear to impartial observers that their actions were only …… the situation in the city.
- The whale had …… itself near to the island and the lifeboats crews and coastal authorities did everything they could to get it back in the water.
- There were 1,000 soldiers in the unit at the start of the campaign but their numbers were …… by enemy fire and, at the end, only 10% were left uninjured.
- The trains were full of football fans and when they arrived in Newcastle they …… a huge and over-excited crowd on to the streets of the city.
- The city …… with a mass of busy consumers urgently seeking to complete their final Christmas purchases.
- The view across the city was …… because of the number of dramatic new high-rise buildings that had transformed the centre.
- The huge …… moved like giants across the crowded port collecting and delivering the many containers.
- He battled hard through the third round of the competition but was finally …… in the following round.
Activity 5 – Questions on the text
- What did some people do after containers were washed off the ship?
- In what ways have port towns/cities changed over the last few decades?
- What is the strangest thing about modern ports of today?
- What were three reasons why McLean thought that containers would be an improvement?
- What were three disadvantages of containerisation from the point of view of the port employees?
- Why are containers a potential danger for some countries?
- Why are they sometimes a danger to other ships?
- How can plastic bags be dangerous?
Activity 6 – Exploration of language
- Find as many words as you can that modify a head noun. Here are two examples:
- bullet-grey sky
- largest container port
- Look at these two sentences. Both sentences contain a relative pronoun ‘which’. Why does one have commas but not the other one?
- The giant gantry cranes, which sweep the containers on or off the waiting ships with grace, are mesmerising to watch, except that there is almost nobody there to watch.
- The few drivers and crane operators present are following the instructions of a computer which has calculated the precise order in which the containers should be moved and stacked for maximum efficiency.
- Explain the meaning of the saying below. Do you have similar sayings in your first language?
- …the devil makes work for idle hands …
Activity 7 – Metaphors
There are two examples of metaphor in the passage. Can you find them?
How many metaphorical references can you think of related to weather?
Activity 8 – Things to think about and discuss
- On balance, do you think that containerisation has been a good thing?
- Who have been the losers and who have been the winners?
- Why are Britain’s raw materials and manufacturing exports relatively low?
- What types of ‘services’ does Britain export to bridge the ‘trade gap’?
- Does your home country export many containers full of manufactured goods?
- Which countries are the main trading partners of your country?