NPR : Fresh Air

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

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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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