What Is Inside Those Shipping Containers?

The shipping container is a lesson in the uncontainable nature of modern life. Illustration by Bianca Bagnarelli

We had never thought to ask the question before, but now it seems quite interesting. Give half an hour to Kathryn Schulz, whose writing has frequently interested us, to understand why:

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?…

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