Every industry has its base unit, the quantity by which growth and decline are measured. In shipping, that unit is the 20-foot (six-meter) container, roughly the size of the tiniest of tiny homes. In the 21st century, it is the conduit for much of the material goods that furnish our lives.
Consumers in North America and Europe, ravenous for the newest products, import more than they export. Global trade has boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with stores rushing to restock panic-stripped shelves and housebound shoppers moving online. The demand—and a behemoth traffic jam in the Suez Canal—has sparked container shortages, while some ports can scarcely manage the incoming shipments. In Oakland and Los Angeles, California, full containers have piled up in parking lots and on residential streets. Once unloaded, the boxes are quickly shipped back to China for more cargo. “The lead export of [the twin ports of] Long Beach-Los Angeles is fresh air—that is, empty containers,” says Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a transportation geographer at Hofstra University in New York.
Two years of snafus has brought shipping into the public eye, but for people who live in port cities around the world, the looming vessels anchored offshore are already a familiar sight.