Perhaps you’re snacking on a banana, sipping some coffee or sitting in front of your computer and taking a break from work to read this article.
Most likely, those goods – as well as your smartphone, refrigerator and virtually every other object in your home – once were loaded onto a large container in another country and travelled thousands of miles via ships crossing the ocean before ultimately arriving at your doorstep.
Today, an estimated 90% of the world’s goods are transported by sea, with 60% of that – including virtually all your imported fruits, gadgets and appliances – packed in large steel containers. The rest is mainly commodities like oil or grains that are poured directly into the hull. In total, about US$14 trillion of the world’s goods spend some time inside a big metal box.
In short, without the standardized container, the global supply chain that society depends upon – and that I study – would not exist.
Even as trade grew more advanced, the process of loading and unloading as goods were transferred from one method of transportation to another remained very labour-intensive, time-consuming and costly, in part because containers came in all shapes and sizes. Containers from a ship being transferred onto a smaller rail car, for example, often had to be opened up and repacked into a boxcar.
Different-sized packages also meant space on a ship could not be effectively utilized, and also created weight and balance challenges for a vessel. And goods were more likely to experience damage from handling or theft due to exposure.
Container pioneer Malcolm McLean with his inventions (file image)
But it was not until the 1950s that American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean realized that by standardizing the size of the containers being used in global trade, loading and unloading of ships and trains could be at least partially mechanized, thereby making the transfer from one mode of transportation to another seamless. This way products could remain in their containers from the point of manufacture to delivery, resulting in reduced costs in terms of labour and potential damage.
This system dramatically reduced the cost of loading and unloading a ship. In 1956, manually loading a ship cost $5.86 per ton; the standardized container cut that cost to just 16 cents a ton. Containers also made it much easier to protect cargo from the elements or pirates, since they are made of durable steel and remain locked during transport.
The U.S. made great use of this innovation during the Vietnam War to ship supplies to soldiers, who sometimes even used the containers as shelters.
Today, the standard container size is 20 feet long, eight feet wide and nine feet tall – a size that’s become known as a “20-foot-equivalent container unit,” or TEU. There are actually a few different standard sizes, such as 40 feet long or a little taller, though they all have the same width. One of the key advantages is that whatever size a ship uses, they all, like Lego blocks, fit neatly together with virtually no empty spaces.
The Ever Given, the ship that blocked traffic through the Suez Canal for almost a week in March 2021, has a similar capacity, 20,000 containers.
In terms of cost, imagine this: The typical pre-pandemic price of transporting a 20-foot container carrying over 20 tons of cargo from Asia to Europe was about the same as an economy ticket to fly the same journey.
But the growing size of ships has a cost, as the Ever Given incident showed.
Maritime shipping has grown increasingly important to global supply chains and trade, yet it was rather invisible until the logjam and blockage of the Suez Canal. As the Ever Given was traversing the narrow 120-mile canal, fierce wind gusts blew it to the bank, and its 200,000 tons of weight got it stuck in the muck.