In 1956 Malcolm McLean, the transport entrepreneur, enabled the world’s leading economies to distribute consumer goods into an array of colorful, durable shipping containers that could be packed onto trucks and ships to be transported swiftly, cheaply and reliably across the globe. This intermodal shipping container has since continued to be a major supplier towards the insatiable appetite for mass consumerism.
These colorful, corrugated, metallic boxes seemed omnipresent in my life, whether seen resting on large semi-trucks hulking down the freeway, on flatbed train cars that snake through urban and natural landscapes like some exotic reptile, or piled onto one another in gargantuan seaports. With their combination of basic color and simple geometry the shipping container has drastically changed the way we send and receive goods around the world today.
The efficiency with which these containers could be fitted onto trucks, trains and ships and moved through the vast transportation systems, heralded the approach towards globalization. This forced the need to expand various transportation networks, docks, ports and the size of the transports to facilitate the growing use of shipping containers. The advent of the Internet’s online shopping venture since the 2000s, further stressed the importance of the role of the container.
No matter how you view it, the shipping container ultimately remains a simple metal box, that is either 20 or 40 feet in length, with a cubic volume of 1300 or 2400 cubic feet. Yet its modular structure enables it to function as a catalyst for improving global trade and economies and go as far as providing an eco-friendly alternative solution to architects who’ve managed to transform it into affordable living, work and storage spaces. The mere cost of owning a “used” container or in “like new” condition ranges from $1500 – $8000, far less than a new car or home, has increased its popularity with certain consumers looking to simplify their lifestyle or who want to think different.
When the shipping container came onto the scene to solve the major issues of time constraints, it basically set the wheels in motion on two fronts. One, that it revolutionized the cargo handling process worldwide. And two, that it inadvertently began the process of deindustrialization of various port cities, because it made cheaper imports possible and ushered in technological improvements that transformed the character of these cities. This meant that certain types of industries like steel, coal mining and textile that once used to dominate this industry could no longer be sustained.
Yet for all the positives the shipping container has come with, it still isn’t without its negatives, though it was never the intention of its inventor.
Along with the standard goods being transported around the globe, human beings have also become part of the manifest that’s being moved inside of shipping containers. Next to narcotics and tobacco smuggling, human trafficking using containers has also increased over the years, leading to several deaths from suffocation when locked inside for large amounts of time and in adverse weather conditions.
Since the improved design of the shipping container in the 1970s, theft of goods has dropped significantly, but so has the labor costs in dealing with the fully sealed shipping containers since their introduction. Longshoremen used to load, hoist, deposit, and carefully pack all the cargo into every curve and corner of the ship. The intermodal solution brought about automation that was craved by the company owners to improve on speed, efficiency and almost error-free process that involved little to no human interaction, while saving money in the process.
Another negative observed is with newer and improved shipping routes, advancements in weather tracking technology and ship navigation systems, a growing fleet of over 52000 liner ships have continued to add to the world’s air and water pollution. This proliferation of shipping lines in turn increases the chances of human error and risk of being destroyed, capsized or sunk in normal or severe weather. Major maritime disasters involving ships that can carry 18000 containers or more at one time, often leave a devastating trail of consumer goods that affect the oceans and shores.
Despite the negatives, shipping containers continue to awe me as much as they have influenced my shopping habits. When I first set eyes on the Los Angeles seaport from a window of a commercial airline, my mind was forever seared by the surreal amalgamations of color, shapes and forms that lay shimmering in the afternoon sun, several thousand feet below me.
Years later as I became heavily involved with the work on the Coincidental Accretion series, I wondered about mass consumerism and it could influence the shipping industry some day that would transform it into a greener and more responsible player. Perhaps it’s too much for my mind to wrap around, but the future of these ports and their cities will certainly change from what we see and know of today.
Nevertheless the shipping container that’s impacted our lives in so many ways will probably continue to be the pioneer in reshaping the world of consumer goods with its modular state.