Coming to a Store Near You

Written by Bruce Stutz, originally published at OnEarth Magazine.

When I first moved to Brooklyn in the early 1970s I lived not far from the waterfront and often walked along the piers to watch the longshoremen drive forklift loads of cargo back and forth, in and out of the dockside warehouses. By then these were trucking warehouses; cargo ships no longer tied up. But the dockworkers’ hustle, the forklifts and hand trucks being maneuvered among the maze of stacked crates, were enough to evoke the gritty, labor-intensive, old-time Brooklyn waterfront that I knew from reading Arthur Miller and Budd Schulberg.

Those piers and warehouses are gone, replaced by a gentrified waterfront park. What remains of the shipping industry in New York lies across the harbor along the New Jersey waterfront, where, from Brooklyn on a clear day, one can see the port’s imposing gauntlet of 30-story-high steel cranes. This is a different kind of port, Rose George points out in her book Ninety Percent of Everything. There’s hardly a soul to be seen. The modern port is “a place where humans are hidden in crane or truck cabs, where everything is clamorous machines.”

Since 1970 the amount of goods shipped by sea has grown fourfold. Asian-made clothing, cars, sneakers, computers, and cell phones account for much of that increase. Still, “shipping is so cheap,” George reports, “that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted [and] then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants than to pay Scottish filleters.”

Even more disconcerting, at these “Terminator terminals,” as she calls them, there’s no cargo to be seen: no bundles, sacks, bags, drums, crates, or vehicles, only anonymous containers known as TEUs—“twenty-foot-equivalent units”—lifted into the air and then stacked by the thousands into the hulls and onto the decks of ships nearly as long as the Empire State Building is tall. This undifferentiated cargo crosses the world’s oceans to distant ports where identical cranes transfer these “intermodal” containers onto trucks or rail cars in exchange for containers that have just arrived. These containers and the huge ships that can carry 13,000 of them have, over the past 20 years, reduced labor and in-port costs and created a nearly giddying economy of scale. Where it used to take days to load and unload a ship, it now takes hours.
 
“Before containers,” writes George, “transport costs ate up 25 percent of the value of whatever was being shipped. A sweater can now travel three thousand miles for 2.5 cents; it costs one cent to send a can of beer.”

Since 1970 the amount of goods shipped by sea has grown fourfold. Asian-made clothing, cars, sneakers, computers, and cell phones account for much of that increase. Still, “shipping is so cheap,” George reports, “that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted [and] then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants than to pay Scottish filleters.”

To the good, George can report that this economy of scale translates into fewer greenhouse gases emitted per ton shipped per mile: 11 grams of CO2 emissions by ship compared with 40 by rail, about 110 by truck, and 1,193 by air. She cites a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which publishes OnEarth, showing similar savings in emissions of nitrous oxide and particulate matter. “Sending a container from Shanghai to Le Havre,” George writes, “emits fewer greenhouse gases than the truck that takes the container on to Lyon.”

Following a hypothetical shipment of cotton apparel from China’s cotton-growing province of Xinjiang to its manufacturing and shipping hub in Shanghai, from Shanghai to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Denver, the NRDC study concluded that “a retailer could send 101 full containers by ship and still emit fewer GHGs than one container sent by plane.”

And yet, as George points out, the size and number of these ships make their “greenness” a relative concept: “Shipping is not benign because there is so much of it. It emits a billion tons of carbon a year and nearly four percent of [all] greenhouse gases... more than all aviation and road transport.”

The container ship on which George travels from England to Thailand, courtesy of Maersk, has an 80,000-horsepower engine that each day consumes 260 tons of heavy fuel oil. That oil, known as bunker fuel, is just “one step up from asphalt,” as someone tells George. “Only forest fires produce more black carbon than bunker fuel,” she says. “Bunker fuel can have a sulfur content of up to 45,000 parts per million (ppm). Low-sulfur diesel for cars is supposed to contain 10 ppm.”

The near-shore emissions from these ships, one study demonstrated, are responsible for some 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths annually. “In Los Angeles,” George writes, “half of all smog from sulfur dioxide comes in from ships.”

Large cargo ships (and tanker ships) are also noisy. As George learns, this “pernicious, widespread, damaging and preventable” acoustic pollution means that the chances of marine mammals “finding a mate, food, and probably surviving have all been decimated.”

The shipping industry recognizes that it can mitigate some of its worst environmental depredations by, for instance, switching to auxiliary engines that run on cleaner low-sulfur fuel when near port or by simply going a few knots slower at sea to reduce fuel consumption and emissions and, it’s hoped, avoid unhappy contact with marine mammals. George finds, however, that despite United Nations conventions and international maritime organizations, “in practice, the ocean is the world’s wildest place,” where it’s easy “to slip from the boundaries of law and civilization.”

Boarding a container vessel on its voyage to Asia, George intends to break through this anonymity. But it’s an uphill battle. When a crew member asks why she would want to write about a container ship voyage, she tells him it’s because “shipping is so fundamental and crucial and no one knows about it.”

“But,” he says, “it’s boring.”

He does have a point. While truckers may produce more greenhouse gases, they do at least get the chance to talk while they drive and hang out at interesting truck stops along the way. Container ship crews of 20 or so work long shifts and have little leisure. Like airplanes that make quick terminal turn-arounds, ships spend little time in the modern mechanized port, so crews rarely get to venture far from the ship. Everyone on this floating warehouse seems to spend his time fighting boredom. George’s laconic captain, near retirement, has spent a lifetime at sea but has little to say about the industry other than that it’s changed. “The sea?” he asks inscrutably. “It’s cold and wet.”
 
Even George seems at times afflicted with a kind of sensory deprivation. She tells us little of the changing skies, waters, and weather as she travels a route most of us would be eager to follow, along the coast of Europe, into the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, across the Gulf of Aden, to Oman, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and finally Thailand. It’s not for lack of ability: she writes compelling chapter-long digressions on piracy and shipwrecks, the human toll of which challenges the industry’s efforts to remain invisible. (Ship ownership can be an international corporate shell game. When, for instance, in 1999 the oil tanker Erika broke up off the coast of Brittany and polluted 250 miles of French coastline, it was impossible to find out who actually owned the ship and whom to charge for the cleanup.)

The container ship is a major link in the great intermodalized, globalized, and internationalized supply chain. Yet unless a ship sinks or is captured by pirates, we don’t ask, as George does, how it is that all the things we buy find their way to us. In the same way, until a factory fire kills hundreds in Pakistan, or more than 1,000 die in a building collapse in Bangladesh, we don’t ask where our clothes, sneakers, cell phones, or computers come from, who makes them, or how they live. Yet, as George reminds us, these things that we don’t know or don’t want to know are “fundamental and crucial.”

They will only become more so as rising consumerism worldwide means more of “everything” traveling by sea. Shipping is now growing by 2 percent to 6 percent each year, George reports. To accommodate larger vessels the Panama Canal is undergoing a massive expansion. Vying for the new business, ports along the U.S. Gulf and East coasts are spending billions to deepen their channels, enlarge their facilities, and upgrade rail and highway connections. And yet when the canal expansion is complete in 2015, it will already be nearly two generations of container ship behind, able to handle vessels carrying 13,000 containers when, as unlikely as it may seem, the industry is building ships capable of carrying 20,000 or more. Such ships will be able to dock at only a few specialized ports, ever more remote and sequestered, even farther out of sight and out of mind.

Bruce Stutz, former editor-in-chief of Natural History, became a contributing editor to OnEarth in the fall of 2004. He is the author of Chasing Spring: An American Journey Through a Changing Season (Scribner).

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