When Shipping Containers Sink in the Drink
We’ve supersized our capacity to ship stuff across the seas. As our global supply chains grow, what can we gather from the junk that washes up on shore?
There is a stretch of coastline in southern Cornwall known for its dragons. The black ones are rare, the green ones rarer; even a dedicated dragon hunter can go a lifetime without coming across a single one. Unlike the dragons of European myth, these do not hoard treasure, cannot breathe fire, and, lacking wings, cannot fly. They are aquatic, in that they always arrive from the sea, and they are capable of travelling considerable distances. One was spotted, like Saoirse Ronan, on Chesil Beach; another made its home on the otherwise uninhabited Dutch island of Griend, in the Wadden Sea. Mostly, though, they are drawn to the windswept beaches of southwestern England—to Portwrinkle and Perranporth, to Bigbury Bay and Gunwalloe. If you want to go looking for these dragons yourself, it will help to know that they are three inches long, missing their arms and tails, and made by the Lego company.
Cornwall owes its dragon population to the Tokio Express, a container ship that sailed from Rotterdam for North America in February of 1997 and ran into foul weather twenty miles off Land’s End. In heavy seas, it rolled so far abeam that sixty-two of the containers it was carrying wrenched free of their fastenings and fell overboard. One of those containers was filled with Lego pieces—to be specific, 4,756,940 of them. Among those were the dragons (33,427 black ones, 514 green), but, as fate would have it, many of the other pieces were ocean-themed. When the container slid off the ship, into the drink went vast quantities of miniature scuba tanks, spearguns, diving flippers, octopuses, ship’s rigging, submarine parts, sharks, portholes, life rafts, and the bits of underwater seascapes known among Lego aficionados as lurps and burps—Little Ugly Rock Pieces and Big Ugly Rock Pieces, of which 7,200 and 11,520, respectively, were aboard the Tokio Express. Not long afterward, helicopter pilots reported looking down at the surface of the Celtic Sea and seeing “a slick of Lego.” (As with “fish,” “sheep,” and “offspring,” the most widely accepted plural of “Lego” is Lego.) Soon enough, some of the pieces lost overboard started washing ashore, mostly on Cornish beaches.
Things have been tumbling off boats into the ocean for as long as humans have been a seafaring species, which is to say, at least ten thousand and possibly more than a hundred thousand years. But the specific kind of tumbling off a boat that befell the nearly five million Lego pieces of the Tokio Express is part of a much more recent phenomenon, dating only to about the nineteen-fifties and known in the shipping industry as “container loss.” Technically, the term refers to containers that do not make it to their destination for whatever reason: stolen in port, burned up in a shipboard fire, seized by pirates, blown up in an act of war. But the most common way for a container to get lost is by ending up in the ocean, generally by falling off a ship but occasionally by going down with one when it sinks.
There are many reasons for this kind of container loss, but the most straightforward one is numerical. In today’s world, some six thousand container ships are out on the ocean at any given moment. The largest of these can carry more than twenty thousand shipping containers per voyage; collectively, they transport a quarter of a billion containers around the globe every year. Given the sheer scale of those numbers, plus the factors that have always bedevilled maritime travel—squalls, swells, hurricanes, rogue waves, shallow reefs, equipment failure, human error, the corrosive effects of salt water and wind—some of those containers are bound to end up in the water. The question, of interest to the inquisitive and important for economic and environmental reasons, is: What on earth is inside them?
A standard shipping container is made of steel, eight feet wide, eight and a half feet tall, and either twenty or forty feet long; it could be described as a glorified box, if there were anywhere for the glory to get in. And yet for one of the world’s least prepossessing objects it has developed something of a cult following in recent years. A surprising number of people now live in shipping containers, some of them because they have no other housing option and some of them because they have opted into the Tiny House movement, but a few in the name of architectural experiments involving several-thousand-foot homes constructed from multiple containers. Others, preferring their shipping containers in the wild, have become passionate container spotters, deducing the provenance of each one based on its color, logo, decals, and other details, as delineated in resources like “The Container Guide,” by Craig Cannon and Tim Hwang, the John James Audubons of shipping containers. Other volumes on the increasingly crowded container-ship shelf range from Craig Martin’s eponymous “Shipping Container,” which forms part of Bloomsbury Academic’s Object Lessons series and cites the likes of the French philosopher Bruno Latour and the American artist Donald Judd, to “Ninety Percent of Everything,” whose author, Rose George, spent five weeks on a container ship, bringing to life not only the inner workings of the shipping industry but also the daily existence of the people charged with transporting the world’s goods across dangerous and largely lawless oceans.
Viewed in a certain light, all this attention makes sense because, during the past half century or so, the shipping container has radically reshaped the global economy and the everyday lives of almost everyone on the planet. The tale of that transformation was recounted a decade and a half ago by Marc Levinson in “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.” Before the rise of the container, moving cargo over water was an expensive, labor-intensive business. To minimize the distance between products and the vessels that transported them, ports were crowded with factories and warehouses, as well as with the stevedores and longshoremen tasked with loading and unloading goods. (The distinction was spatial: stevedores worked on the ship, while longshoremen worked on the dock.) Some of those goods were bulk cargo—a commodity like oil, which can be poured into a tank for relatively easy storage and transport—but most of them were “break-bulk” cargo, which had to be loaded item by item: bagged cement, wheels of cheese, bales of cotton, you name it. All this unrelated stuff had to be packed together carefully, so that it wouldn’t shift in transit, breaking valuable items or, worse, capsizing the ship. For the workers, the labor involved required skill, brawn, and a high tolerance for pain. (In Manchester, in a single year, half of all longshoremen were injured on the job.) For the shipping companies, it required money. Between wages and equipment, up to seventy-five per cent of the cost of transporting goods by water was incurred while a ship was in port.
All of this changed in 1956, because of a man named Malcom McLean. He was not originally a shipping magnate; he was the ambitious owner of a trucking company who figured he would be able to outbid his competitors if he could sometimes transport goods by waterway rather than by highway. When his initial idea of simply driving his trucks onto cargo ships proved economically inefficient, he began tinkering with removable boxes that could be stacked atop one another, as well as easily swapped among trucks, trains, and ships. In pursuit of that vision, he bought and retrofitted a couple of Second World War tankers, and then recruited an engineer who had already been working on aluminum containers that could be lifted by crane from truck to ship. On April 26, 1956, one of the tankers, the SS Ideal-X, sailed from New Jersey to Texas carrying fifty-eight shipping containers. On hand to witness the event was a higher-up in the International Longshoremen’s Association who, when asked what he thought of the ship, supposedly replied, “I’d like to sink that son of a bitch.”
That longshoreman clearly understood what he was seeing: the end of the shipping industry as he and generations of dockworkers before him knew it. At the time the Ideal-X left port, it cost an average of $5.83 per ton to load a cargo ship. With the advent of the shipping container, that price dropped to an estimated sixteen cents—and cargo-related employment plummeted along with it. These days, a computer does the work of figuring out how to pack a ship, and a trolley-and-crane system removes an inbound container and replaces it with an outbound one roughly every ninety seconds, unloading and reloading the ship almost simultaneously. The resulting cost savings have made overseas shipping astonishingly cheap. To borrow Levinson’s example, you can get a twenty-five-ton container of coffeemakers from a factory in Malaysia to a warehouse in Ohio for less than the cost of one business-class plane ticket. “Transportation has become so efficient,” he writes, “that for many purposes, freight costs do not much affect economic decisions.”
In another sense, those costs, in their very insignificance, do affect economic decisions. They are the reason that manufacturers can circumvent wage, workplace, and environmental protections by moving their plants elsewhere, and the reason that all those elsewheres—small cities far from ports, in Vietnam or Thailand or the Chinese hinterlands—can use their cheap land and cheap labor to gain a foothold in the global economy. Thanks to McLean’s innovation, manufacturers can drastically lengthen the supply chain yet still come out on top financially. If you have ever wondered why a shirt you buy in Manhattan costs so much less if it came from a factory in Malacca than from a tailor in midtown, the answer, in large part, is the shipping container.
Like the plastic dragons of Cornwall, a fully loaded container ship looks like something that might have been made by the Lego company. The effect comes from the fact that the containers are painted a single solid color—blue, green, red, orange, pink, yellow, aquamarine—and resemble standard Lego building blocks, especially when stacked atop one another. Those stacks begin down in the hold, and aboveboard they can run as wide as twenty-three abreast and loom as tall as a ten-story building.
The vessels that carry those stacks start at a size that you and I might regard as large—say, four hundred feet from bow to stern, or roughly the length of a baseball field from home plate to the center-field wall—but that the shipping industry describes as a Small Feeder. Then things scale up, from a regular Feeder, a Feedermax, and a Panamax (nine hundred and sixty-five feet, the maximum that could fit through the Panama Canal before recent expansion projects there) all the way to the aptly named Ultra Large Container Vessel, which is about thirteen hundred feet long. Tipped on one end and plunked down on Forty-second Street, a U.L.C.V. would tower over the Chrysler Building. In its normal orientation, as the whole world recently learned to its fascination and dismay, it can block the Suez Canal.
The crews of these ultra-large ships are, by comparison, ultra-tiny; a U.L.C.V. can travel from Hong Kong to California carrying twenty-three thousand containers and just twenty-five people. As a result, it is not unheard-of for a few of those containers to go overboard without anyone even noticing until the vessel arrives in port. (That’s despite the fact that a fully loaded container is roughly the size and weight of a whale shark; imagine the splash when it falls a hundred feet into the ocean.) More often, though, many containers shift and fall together in a dramatic occurrence known as a stack collapse. If fifty or more containers go overboard in a single such incident, the shipping industry deems the episode a “catastrophic event.”
How often any of this happens is a matter of some debate, since shipping companies are typically under no obligation to publicize the matter when their cargo winds up in the ocean. In such instances, the entity that paid to ship the goods is notified, as is the entity that’s meant to receive them. But whether any higher authority learns about the loss largely depends on where it happened, since the ocean is a patchwork of jurisdictions governed by various nations, bodies, and treaties, each of them with different signatories in different states of enforcement. The International Maritime Organization, which is the United Nations agency responsible for setting global shipping standards, has agreed to create a mandatory reporting system and a centralized database of container losses, but that plan has not yet been implemented. In the meantime, the only available data come from the World Shipping Council, a trade organization with twenty-two member companies that control some eighty per cent of global container-ship capacity. Since 2011, the W.S.C. has conducted a triennial survey of those members about container loss, and concluded, in 2020, that, on average, 1,382 containers go overboard each year.
It is reasonable to regard that number warily, since it comes from a voluntary survey conducted by insiders in an industry where all the incentives run in the direction of opacity and obfuscation. “No one reports fully transparent figures,” Gavin Spencer, the head of insurance at Parsyl, a company that focusses on risk management in the supply chain, told me. Insurance companies don’t like to report the individual losses they cover, because doing so would make them seem less profitable, and shipping lines don’t report them, either. (“That would be a bit like airlines declaring how many bags they lose.”) Spencer’s best guess concerning the actual number of containers lost in the ocean is “far more than you can imagine,” and certainly much more than the figures reported by the W.S.C.
The W.S.C. disputes the idea that its data are in any way inaccurate. But, whatever the number, container loss seems to be growing more common. In November of 2020, a ship called the one Apus, on its way from China to Long Beach, got caught in a storm in the Pacific and lost more than eighteen hundred containers overboard—more in one incident than the W.S.C.’s estimated average for a year. The same month, another ship headed to Long Beach from China lost a hundred containers in bad weather, while yet another ship capsized in port in East Java with a hundred and thirty-seven containers on board. Two months later, a fourth ship, also on its way from China to California, lost seven hundred and fifty containers in the North Pacific. The past few years have been characterized by a steady stream of reports about some other quantity of containers lost in some other patch of ocean: forty off the east coast of Australia; twenty-one off the coast of Hawaii; thirty-three off Duncansby Head, Scotland; two hundred and sixty off the coast of Japan; a hundred and five off the coast of British Columbia. On and on it goes, or, rather, off and off.
One reason incidents like these are on the rise is that storms and high winds, long the chief culprit in container loss, are growing both more frequent and more intense as the climate becomes more volatile. Another is the trend toward ever-larger container ships, which has compromised the steering of the vessel and the security of the containers (in both cases because the high stacks on deck catch the wind), while simultaneously rendering those ships vulnerable to parametric rolling, a rare phenomenon that places extreme stress on the containers and the systems meant to secure them. More recently, the steep rise in demand for goods during the covid era has meant that ships that once travelled at partial capacity now set off fully loaded and crews are pressured to adhere to strict timetables, even if doing so requires ignoring problems on board or sailing through storms instead of around them. To make matters worse, shipping containers themselves are in short supply, both because of the increase in demand and because many of them are stuck in the wrong ports owing to earlier shutdowns, and so older containers with aging locking mechanisms have remained in or been returned to circulation. In addition to all this, the risk of human error has gone up during the pandemic as working conditions on container ships, already suboptimal, have further declined—particularly as crew members, too, have sometimes been stuck for weeks or months on a ship in port or at anchor, stranded indefinitely in a worldwide maritime traffic jam.
People who work on oil tankers or aircraft carriers or commercial fishing boats know what they are transporting, but, as a rule, those who work on container ships have no idea what’s in all the boxes that surround them. Nor, for the most part, do customs agents and security officials. A single shipping container can hold five thousand individual boxes, a single ship can offload nine thousand containers within hours, and the largest ports can process as many as a hundred thousand containers every day, all of which means it is essentially impossible to inspect more than a fraction of the world’s shipping containers—a boon to drug cartels, human traffickers, and terrorists, a nightmare for the rest of us.
It is true, of course, that some people do know the contents (or at least the declared contents) of any given shipping container transported by a legal vessel. Each of those containers has a bill of lading—an itemized list of what it is carrying, known to the shipowner, the sender, and the receiver. If any of those containers go overboard, at least two additional parties swiftly learn what was inside them: insurance agents and lawyers. If many of those containers go overboard, the whole incident can become the subject of what’s known as a general average adjustment—an arcane bit of maritime law according to which everyone with cargo aboard a ship that suffers a disaster must help pay for all related expenses, even if the individual’s cargo is intact. (This illogical-seeming arrangement was codified as early as 533 A.D., of logical necessity: if sailors had to jettison cargo from a vessel in distress, they couldn’t afford to waste time selecting the stuff that would cost them the fewest headaches and the least money.) In theory, if you were sufficiently curious and dogged, you could request the court filings for container losses that result in such legal action, then pore over them for information about the contents of the lost containers.
If there are wonderfully obsessive souls who have dedicated their lives to pursuing this kind of information and making it broadly available, I have yet to find them. As a rule, if the public learns about the contents of lost containers at all, it is only in a haphazard fashion—as when those contents make headlines. Back in January, for instance, a ship sailing from Singapore to New York lost sixty-five containers overboard, triggering a wave of news coverage and a bunch of recipe-for-disaster jokes, since the ship had been carrying tens of thousands of copies of two freshly printed cookbooks: Melissa Clark’s “Dinner in One” and Mason Hereford’s “Turkey and the Wolf.”
More often, though, the contents of lost containers become obvious only if they start washing ashore, where they attract the attention of residents and beachcombers, as well as that of regional authorities and environmental organizations, which together often end up funding and coördinating cleanup efforts. The Cornwall dragons, for example, are famous in large part because of a local beachcomber, Tracey Williams, who began tracking them and other ocean-borne Lego pieces on dedicated social media accounts, which proved so popular that she has produced a book on the subject: “Adrift: The Curious Tale of the Lego Lost at Sea,” a charming if desultory stroll through the history and aftermath of the Tokio Express accident. Similarly, when those hundred and five containers were lost off the coast of British Columbia last fall, local volunteers quickly surmised some of the contents, since they found themselves ridding the region’s beaches of baby oil, cologne, Yeti coolers, urinal mats, and inflatable unicorns.
What else has started off on a container ship and wound up in the ocean? Among many, many other things: flat-screen TVs, fireworks, ikea furniture, French perfume, gym mats, BMW motorbikes, hockey gloves, printer cartridges, lithium batteries, toilet seats, Christmas decorations, barrels of arsenic, bottled water, cannisters that explode to inflate air bags, an entire container’s worth of rice cakes, thousands of cans of chow mein, half a million cans of beer, cigarette lighters, fire extinguishers, liquid ethanol, packets of figs, sacks of chia seeds, knee pads, duvets, the complete household possessions of people moving overseas, flyswatters printed with the logos of college and professional sports teams, decorative grasses on their way to florists in New Zealand, My Little Pony toys, Garfield telephones, surgical masks, bar stools, pet accessories, and gazebos.
Every once in while, some of this lost cargo proves beneficial to science. In 1990, when a container ship headed from Korea to the United States lost tens of thousands of Nike athletic shoes overboard, each one bearing a serial number, an oceanographer, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, asked beachcombers all over the world to report any that washed ashore. (Alongside the former BBC journalist Mario Cacciottolo, Ebbesmeyer collaborated with Tracey Williams on “Adrift.”) As it turns out, Nikes tolerate salt water well and will float pretty much until they run out of ocean—although, since the two shoes in a pair orient differently in the wind, one beach might be strewn with right sneakers while another is covered in left ones. Ebbesmeyer used the reported location of the shoes to pioneer a field that he calls “flotsametrics”: the study of ocean currents based on the drift patterns of objects that go overboard. In the past three decades, he has studied everything from the Lego incident to a 1992 container loss involving almost twenty-nine thousand plastic bath toys sold under the name Friendly Floatees, from classic yellow duckies to green frogs, one of which took twenty-six years to wash ashore.
As important as the study of ocean currents may be, it is slim recompense for all those containers going overboard—as Ebbesmeyer well knows, since he helped give the Great Pacific Garbage Patch its name. Shipping-industry insiders like to point out that the problem of container loss is a comparatively small one, by which they mean that the number of containers that end up in the ocean is a tiny fraction of the total shipped. That percentage may be useful as a business metric, but it is irrelevant to manatees and crabs and petrels and coral, not to mention all the rest of us who—like it or not, know it or not—are affected by the accumulation of containers and their contents in the ocean.
If those contents include any goods that the International Maritime Organization defines as dangerous (among them, explosives, radioactive substances, toxic gases, asbestos, and things prone to spontaneous combustion), the carrier is obliged to report the incident to the relevant authority. That’s a useful but limited requirement, partly because once the carrier has done so it often has no further responsibilities and partly because a great many items that don’t meet this definition are nonetheless destructive to marine and coastal environments. The Tokio Express might not have been the Exxon Valdez, but five million pieces of plastic are hardly a welcome addition to the ocean. Nor are flyswatters or bottles of detergent or Christmas decorations, to say nothing of their packaging—most of it plastic or, worse still, Styrofoam, which, when buffeted by waves, breaks into pebble-size pieces that are extremely hard to clean up and look, to certain birds and aquatic animals, enticingly edible.
For an object that is fundamentally a box, designed to keep things inside it, the shipping container is a remarkable lesson in the uncontainable nature of modern life—the way our choices, like our goods, ramify around the world. The only thing those flat-screen TVs and Garfield telephones and all the other wildly variable contents of lost shipping containers have in common is that, collectively, they make plain the scale of our excess consumption. The real catastrophe is the vast glut of goods we manufacture and ship and purchase and throw away, but even the small fraction of those goods that go missing makes the consequences apparent. Six weeks after the Tokio Express got into trouble at Land’s End, another container ship ran aground sixteen nautical miles away, sending dozens of containers into the sea just off the coast of the Isles of Scilly. Afterward, among the shells and pebbles and dragons, residents and beachcombers kept coming across some of the cargo: a million plastic bags, headed for a supermarket chain in Ireland, bearing the words “Help protect the environment.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the June 6, 2022, issue, with the headline “Shipping News.”