Since Malcom McClean invented the modern shipping container in the late sixties, no individual item has had a greater impact on the US and world economies. These large, steel and aluminum boxes can be filled with products, carried by truck to the nearest port, and loaded by crane onto a ship specifically designed to carry them. Then, upon reaching the next port, the containers are stacked onto a rail car and carried across country, loaded onto another truck and hauled to a warehouse before being unloaded and the products distributed to stores.
Shipping containers have not only revolutionized shipping. They have revolutionized manufacturing and distribution. More than any other single factor, they have enabled and defined globalization.
In the process, they have eliminated jobs of dock workers and merchant mariners. They nearly destroyed our railroads. And they have allowed manufacturers to export jobs to countries with the lowest salaries and least regulations. Indeed, the equipment from manufacturing plants in the US was likely shipped to new manufacturing plants in China and other parts of Asia in shipping containers.
True, these containers also bring us cheaper products. But, following the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, an increasingly smaller percentage of Americans are able to afford them.
During a recent interview on National Public Radio, Rose George, author of Ninety Percent Of Everything; Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes On Your Back, Gas In Your Car, Food On Your Plate, explained that the efficiency of the shipping container has impacted virtually every industry on every part of the planet. For example, she noted it is now cheaper for Scotland’s fishing industry to load fish caught in the North Atlantic into containers and ship them to China to be filleted then shipped back than to have workers fillet them in Scotland!
This is good for the companies, good for China, and good for the consumer. It’s bad for Scottish workers and bad for the environment. For even though maritime shipping is, in itself, fuel efficient, such unnecessary shipping adds to the carbon emissions that accelerate climate change. Ships and their sonar also create noise that disrupts communications of sea life, such as dolphins and whales. And there is the inevitable pollution of waste from the ships.
There are other negative aspects of shipping containers. Since they have overwhelmed ports around the world, there are far too many to be checked by customs and law enforcement, making it easier for smuggling rings to operate. They have even been used to smuggle humans into the US. The increased maritime traffic has also rejuvenated the once-dying pirate trade. And increased shipping has accelerated the transfer of invasive species.
Often the shipping containers used to bring finished products to the US are filled with our toxic e-waste and shipped to countries that have few environmental regulations for the heavy metals to be reclaimed, damaging the environment and risking the health of low-paid workers in the process.
George’s book and another, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller, by Marc Levinson examine the scope of the container shipping industry and all of its impacts, both positive and negative, on our society.
Both books are fascinating reads. But they could just as well have been titled How the Shipping Container Destroyed the American Middle Class.