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Shipping: The 'Invisible Industry' That Clothes And Feeds You

Ninety percent of what we wear, eat and consume is carried by container ships like this one at the state-run Jaya Container Terminal of Sri Lanka's port of Colombo. (AFP/Getty Images)

Imagine a ship carrying goods in containers that, if lined up, would stretch around 11,000 miles long, or nearly halfway around the planet. Rose George spent several weeks aboard one such ship as research for her new book, Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate.

She writes, "There are more than one hundred thousand ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live." Yet, because we're on land, they're out of sight. Even people who make a point of ethical eating and shopping are usually unaware of the often poor working conditions for seafarers on these ships.

George's previous book, The Big Necessity, was about another subject that is largely out of sight: where human waste goes after you flush the toilet, and what happens in regions that don't have plumbing. She tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about who invented the shipping container and how the shipping industry affects ocean life.


Interview Highlights

On the breadth of the shipping industry

"Ninety percent of what we wear, we eat, we consume is carried by ships. ... Container ships carry a vast amount of stuff. For example, the ship that I was on, which was a midsized container ship, it was about three football fields long. It carried 6,000 TEUs, 20-foot equivalent unit[s] ... [which are] containers or boxes, and they could carry anything. They could carry cat food, they could carry drugs, pharmaceuticals, batteries, airbags, anything. And at every port across the world they are taking on thousands of tons of cargo and discharging thousands of tons of cargo, and they do that every month."

On how shipping containers revolutionized commerce

"[Shipping containers] began [in the] late 1970s [to] flourish as the standard unit of transport. ...

"Before that ... it wasn't really worth your while financially to transport something when most of your costs were eaten up just getting it to a port. So then in the late 1960s, an American shipper named Malcom McLean had this idea that he could create a lockable unit that could be stacked on top of each other ... and it was called 'multi-modal,' meaning it could be transported from ship to a truck to a train. His idea was that this would create extreme efficiency, and he was right."

On the acoustic pollution of ships' engines and propellers

"That's a huge problem for ocean creatures because they survive by communicating with sound, and their acoustic habitat has been dramatically reduced, partly by ships, also sonar and other man-made activity in the ocean. But, for example, some humpback [whales] now have 10 percent of their [original] acoustic range, so that is a problem."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross with a frog in my throat. So try to fathom this: a ship carrying goods in so many huge containers that if those containers were lined up, they'd stretch around 11,000 miles, or nearly halfway around the planet.

My guest, Rose George, spent several weeks onboard such a container ship as research for her new book "Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate." She writes that there are more than 100,000 ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live, yet because we're on land, this industry is largely out of our sight.

And even people who make a point of ethical eating and shopping are usually unaware of the often poor working conditions for seafarers on these ships. George's previous book was about another subject largely out of sight, human waste. Where does it go after you've flushed the toilet and what happens in regions that don't even have plumbing?

Rose George, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us a sense of the magnitude of the containers and what's contained within them.

ROSE GEORGE: Well, 90 percent of everything we wear, we eat, we consume, is carried by ships. They're not all container ships, but container ships carry a vast amount of stuff. They could carry cat food, they could carry drugs, pharmaceuticals, batteries, air bags, anything. And at every port across the world, they are taking on thousands of tons of cargo and discharging thousands of tons of cargo, and they do that every month.

So for example the ship that I was on, which was a mid-sized container ship, so it was about three football fields long, it carried 6,000 what's known as TEUs, so that's a 20-foot-equivalent unit, which is not a catchy name, but - so let's call them containers or boxes. But that's the unit, the standard unit within the container shipping industry is the TEU.

And that was actually, it's a very mundane name, but it actually revolutionized certainly shipping and probably fueled globalization, if not underpins it.

GROSS: Why did it revolutionize shipping and help start the globalization of goods?

GEORGE: Well before the container, which began early 1960s, it began late 1970s with - it began to flourish as the standard unit of transport, you had to pay a lot to actually transport anything. So it wasn't really worth your while financially to transport something when most of your costs were eaten up just getting it to a port.

So then in the late 1960s, an American shipper called Malcom McLean had this idea that he could create a lockable unit that could be stacked on top of each other. So it had these things called twist locks, and it could be stacked, and it could be what was called multi-modal. So it could be transported from a ship to a truck to a train.

And his idea was this would create extreme efficiency, and he was right. And since then, there was a heck of a battle from dockers who thought that it would reduce their workload, which is true, a lot of them lost jobs, from ports who had to dig new harbors. For example before the box, a lot of New York's trade went into the ports into Manhattan, and after that they had to build this huge port, Port Elizabeth, and they had to create new harbors and new docks.

But it was absolutely revolutionary, and now it's so efficient as a method of transport that it actually makes more sense - for example Scottish fish production people, to send their fish to China to get filleted and then bring it back and refreeze it and sell it. It's actually cheaper to do that than actually do the filleting in Scotland.

GROSS: That's crazy.

GEORGE: It is crazy. It's efficiency. It's a very efficient industry. It's got very tight margins. It's quite volatile, but it is - what it is is efficient.

GROSS: So just to make sure I understand correctly, so with these containers instead of unloading all the bananas from a ship and then loading all the bananas on a truck or a train, you're just loading large crates of bananas, not the bananas themselves. So it just is much more quick and efficient, moving the, for instance, bananas from the ship to the next kind of transportation.

GEORGE: Yeah, you just, you take the box off the ship, you pop it onto a truck, the moves out of the port, there you go, Bob's your uncle. Then the ironic thing is that the truck is then, well, environmentally causing a lot more pollution than the ship that brought all those boxes in together.

But - and if you for example consider the ship that I was on, if you'd unloaded that ship, which again was not considered to be a huge container ship, it would have created a 60-mile-long queue of trucks, each with a container on it.

GROSS: So I want to say thank you for, you know, letting me know about the importance of shipping containers and all those ships at sea carrying them and their importance in globalization and all that stuff, but I feel like I wouldn't want to go on one of those ships.

GEORGE: Oh, you'd be wrong. It's wonderful.

GROSS: But you did, you did. Why did you want to actually take a voyage on one of those huge ships with carrying God knows how many shipping containers?

GEORGE: Well, it was - I'd actually, I'd had a magazine job, a desk job, in about 1999, and at the end of that, even though it was a great job, I just wanted to move. And somebody said, well, why don't you go on a ship. I said OK. And they said, well, why don't you go on a container ship. So I did. I managed to get a passage on a container ship in mid-winter, it was January, going across...

GROSS: Even better.

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGE: Going across the mid-Atlantic, following the path of the Titanic. And it was me and 22 Indians on the ship, and it was such an extraordinarily different world. It was - you're living in a confined space, but you've got this immense ocean outside. There are romantic aspects to it. I mean, we sailed the St. Lawrence River, breaking the ice all the way down to Montreal. I mean, that's pretty unforgettable.

But there was just - it was an exposure to a world that I knew nothing about. I didn't know that these massive ships could be crewed by 22 people, that's all, even though they're so big. And I didn't know who these crews were because I think it's the same in the U.S., but certainly in the U.K., it's very difficult nowadays to find a working seafarer.

I don't know any ships' captains personally because our seafaring personnel, the men and women who go to sea, has reduced so dramatically since the Second World War. So now you go to sea, and you're more likely to find Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Indians, Russians, Ukrainians than you are to find an American or a Brit.

So even though I've traveled, and I've been to some crazy places on land, like I've been to Saddam Hussein's birthday party twice, but I went on this ship, and I thought this is one of the most foreign environments I can ever hope to go to. And of course the ocean is the wildest place on the planet. And I just wanted to go back.

So I thought this is something I want to write a book about. It's something I think is absolutely fundamental to modern existence, and yet we've managed to ignore it. We see the sea as this place of leisure and this place, you know, a blue patch on the map to fly over because we all go by plane these days, mostly. And we don't really see it as a place of industry anymore.

So I wanted to have a look at this industry and who worked in it, and I managed, using the same technique as I did to get down the sewers for my last book, which is on sanitation, which is I approached the publicist, and I just kept asking nicely, and eventually I was very lucky that Maersk, which is the biggest container shipping line, said OK, you can go on our ship.

And they don't take paying passengers. Some container lines do, but they don't and particularly not through the Indian Ocean, which was, at the time, was already really in trouble from Somali pirates. But they said yes.

GROSS: So describe the ship that you were on.

GEORGE: She was sky blue, which was a Maersk blue. It's a patented color. She had 6,000 boxes. The crew were 21. There was - I was actually surprised to find out I wasn't the only woman onboard because the chef was a Filipino woman called Pinkie(ph). And my quarters were very spacious, very luxurious. I had a senior officer's quarters.

The most surprising thing was the first night, when I got into my cabin, and I couldn't understand why there were lots of pieces of paper shoved in behind picture frames and under the TV. And then the first night, I realized very quickly what they were for because the ship vibrated so amazingly because it has engines the size of a house.

And unlike cruise ships, which do take steps to soundproof cabins for passengers, cargo ships don't do that. So you quickly learn to sleep in earplugs. But I mean, I was onboard for 29 days. I went through five seas, two oceans, six ports, one canal, and I absolutely loved it, and I didn't want to get off.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rose George, and we're talking about her new book "Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car and Food on Your Plate." Rose, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rose George, and her new book "Ninety Percent of Everything" is about shipping, and as it turns out, just about everything is shipped around the world by ships. And specifically she's writing about container ships, those ships that carry those, like, huge containers, And how that's kind of revolutionized things.

But at the same time, a lot of people who do the work are very poorly treated. Rose, let's talk about the workers on the container ships that you write about. you say we boycott food produced by companies that mistreat their workers, but we know little about the sometimes atrocious conditions on the ships that carry the food.

So you've told us that there aren't that many Americans or Brits who work on these ships. Is that because the wages are so low?

GEORGE: Well, it's because of a very simple change in shipping, which had really profound effect, and that was the introduction of the flag of convenience, or the open registry, as the preferred method of flagging a ship. So before that happened after the Second World War, ships would fly the flag of their nation-state, so the nation-state that their owner belonged to.

That was not always the case. They could - they did swap flags sometimes in times of war when it was convenient, but essentially that was how ships operated. So you had a flag, and you were a little bit of your sovereign state floating on the high seas, and you had certain protections from that flag.

That's now different because now 70 percent of the world's ships fly a flag of convenience or a flag from what the shipping industry prefers to call an open registry. And what that means is that any ship owner can go to any country in the world that has a flag registry, even if it doesn't have a coastline like Bolivia, and essentially rent their flag. It's like a brand.

GROSS: Why would you want to do that?

GEORGE: You'd want to do that because there's a reason it's called a flag of convenience; it's very convenient. I think the U.S. government did an analysis of how much a ship owner, a U.S. ship owner could save by it's called flagging out, so getting - using a foreign flag, and it was at least a million dollars a year.

And the reason is that some flag registries have much laxer regulations about minimum wages, or there's no unions imposing problems on ship owners. Taxes are often very low. A lot of them advertise anonymity as an attraction. And I must stress many flag registries are perfectly good, but some aren't.

And it often baffles me that even passengers, and my book is not about cruise ships, but I have looked at that, but it baffles me that people will go to sea on these cruise ships, and they'll, you know, very carefully go through what will keep them safe at sea, like checking their safe and keeping their valuables in the safe and what have you, but they won't check the flag of the ship.

And when they set foot on that ship and when they leave territorial waters, they are essentially in a foreign country, but they don't check that. And if anything goes wrong, then they're under the regulations and enforcement of that foreign country.

GROSS: So because of flagging out, are some ships that are using these flags of convenience paying the workers very low wages because they can?

GEORGE: They can. So they can pay lower wages, and they can also unfortunately in some case, few case but frequent cases, they don't pay at all. So the International Transport Workers Federation and the International Labor Organization, who look at seafarers' working conditions, keep databases of abandoned ships.

So there are actually - there are abandoned ships, but there are also abandoned crews. So if you look into this database, you'll find ships that would - the owners often have just one or two ships, they're not big companies, but they'll just stop paying, and they'll just leave these crews there, and they'll be there for months and months and months.

Sometimes their food runs out, their fresh water runs out, and they're in really dire straits.

GROSS: So let's talk about the working conditions on the ship that you were on. And this was a Danish ship flying a British flag.

GEORGE: Yes, my ship was owned by Maersk, which is a Danish company. It's a huge company. When I say it's Danish, it's like saying, you know, Microsoft is American. It's - you know, these are global, huge companies, but we've all heard of Microsoft.

So Maersk, yes it's a Danish company, but it has British-flagged ships, a few, and so it's known to be a good company. It has good conditions. The ship I was on was very nice. There was always food. There was always - there was a gym, there was a library. But the actual realities of being, of working at sea is it's a very hard life because they have long hours.

It's difficult on a ship to get away from your job because that accommodation house, which is where seafarers live, is their workplace, it's where they live, it's where they relax, it's everything, and it's just hard to get away. And seafarers often refer to their job as being in prison with a salary. And they're not usually joking, even though some salaries are really good.

Like the guys on my ship, even the lowest rating was getting about 1,000 U.S. dollars per month, which for a Filipino is a really good wage. And the captain, I didn't ask him what he was on, but he was on a good enough salary to have built a house extension and got a Mercedes, and his salary's tax-free. But it's just a difficult life.

It's lonely, and it's an astonishing thing to me, still, that two-thirds of seafarers at sea have no Internet access while at sea. And they often very rarely have free Internet access in ports, either. And because container shipping is so efficient these days, even huge ships like the Ever(ph) Maersk can be in and out of port in 24 hours. So there's very little time for seafarers to get ashore and get away from the ship and just get some free time.

And while they're at sea, they can't contact their families. There are satellite phones, but they're expensive. So it's a difficult, quite lonely environment.

GROSS: So there's a lot of emissions that are released by these ships. Do these emissions go into the ocean or into the air or both?

GEORGE: Well, you have pollution going two ways, really. You have the emissions going into the air, so the particles going into the air, and then you have another issues, which is even more hidden, which is acoustic pollution from the noise of the engines and the propellers. And that's a huge problem for ocean creatures because they survive by communicating with sound.

And their acoustic habitat has been dramatically reduced partly by ships, also by sonar and other manmade activity in the ocean. But, for example, some humpback whales now have 10 percent of their acoustic range. So that is a problem. It's a huge problem, and it's only just starting to get some scrutiny.

GROSS: Do you mean that their ability to perceive acoustically has been damaged by being exposed to the engine noise?

GEORGE: Perceive acoustically and also transmit acoustically. So before, they could transmit over thousands of miles, and if a sound drops into a channel, it can cross an ocean. But now that's being reduced quite significantly, partly by the noise of propellers, and it's called cavitation. It's a noise that a propeller makes when it's underwater. And it's - unfortunately it's in the same frequency as many whales communicate in.

So there's a lot of interesting new research and researchers working on this, on acoustic pollution in the ocean, and it's quite depressing research that's coming out.

GROSS: How is this impacting on the lifespan of whales?

GEORGE: We don't know. I looked at the case of the North Atlantic right whale. I was really interested in that particular whale because it's known as the urban whale because it lives so close to the Eastern Seaboard in the U.S. So I went to Cape Cod, and I went out with some whale researchers who were trying to understand what's happening to the North Atlantic right whale because it's critically endangered. There are only about 400 left.

I mean, there are so few of them that they've got names, like Kleenex and Snot. But they...

GROSS: I won't ask.

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGE: It's - scientists need to have their fun, you know, like they need to have tattoos under their lab coats. But they know that at the moment North Atlantic right whales are not having as many calves as they should do. They're looking a bit scrawny, some of them, and they don't know the cause. So they're trying to find out. And the noise pollution is definitely one aspect that they're looking at.

GROSS: My guest is Rose George. Her new book is called "Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping." Her previous book is called "The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters." And it's about toilets and sewage. What do you think about now when you flush a toilet that you didn't think about before you did the research for that book?

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGE: I think about do I need to flush this. You know, do I need to use six liters of drinking water on this particular occasion? Can I leave it a bit? I probably wouldn't have done that before. I think about what's going down my sink. So I won't pour oil down my sink. I won't - if I'm cleaning a pan, I'll wipe it and bin because I've seen - I've been down sewers.

In fact this week there was a huge what's called a fatberg they found in London's sewers, which blocked the sewer, and...

GROSS: A what?

GEORGE: A fatberg, and it's just a huge block of fat that has congealed in the sewer, and it costs a fortune to remove. It blocks sewers. It causes sewage to back up into people's houses and basements and streets. And it's the product of all our restaurants, our fast food establishments and us not pouring oil down the sink and not thinking that it's going to go into a sewer and cause problems.

GROSS: Is it oil, or is it more things - because oil doesn't usually congeal like that.

GEORGE: I mean cooking oil, cooking oil and fat. It's called FOG, fat, oils and grease. So any kind of greasy, fatty substance going down the sewer is not a good idea.

GROSS: So there's usually signs up in public restrooms asking you not to flush tampons down the toilet, which I always assumed was because they're created to expand when wet. So how big of a problem, globally, is tampons in toilets and in sewage systems?

GEORGE: It's a problem in sewers in the sense that they have to be filtered out, and that's just unnecessary energy, and it's inefficient.

GROSS: I imagine they're not very good for the pipes, either, you know, in the home or the office or public space.

GEORGE: No, basically it's a bad idea to put your tampon down the toilet, or your sanitary pad. I can't imagine anyone would put a sanitary pad down the toilet, but then I talked to flushers and to sewer workers, and they tell me all sorts gets put down the toilet, and that includes sanitary pads galore, it includes diapers, hospital aprons, motorbikes. I mean, you wouldn't believe...

GROSS: Motorbikes?

GEORGE: Yeah, they found motorbikes down sewers. They found a live hand grenade. What really causes problems is actually the humble Q-Tip. That they really hate.

GROSS: Seriously?

GEORGE: That gets stuck in the sieves at the waste water treatment plant, and that's very difficult to get out. You have just manually go and pull them out.

GROSS: Wow, OK, who would have thought?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well Rose George, thank you so much for talking with us.

GEORGE: Thank you.

GROSS: Rose George's new book about the shipping industry is called "Ninety Percent of Everything." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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