The Megaships that Deliver Our Goods, With a Hidden Price

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You know those metal shipping containers? The standard size is 20 feet long by 8 feet wide. Well, imagine a ship that can carry 18,000 of them.

A few weeks ago DnA went to the Port of Long Beach and boarded the biggest ship ever to dock there. It’s called the Benjamin Franklin. It’s owned by French company CMA CGM and it’s named for America’s first ambassador to France.

The CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin. Photo by Frances Anderton.
The CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin. All photos by Frances Anderton.

The ship is as long as the Empire State Building is tall, or four football fields in length. The engine room alone looked like something out of a James Bond movie.

“The engine room is three stories tall, and it has eleven pistons that drive the engine. It has as much thrust as eleven 747s. It has to move 200,000 tons through the water,” said Ed McCarthy, Chief Operating Officer of CMA CGM America.

Then he lead us down a very long hallway.

“This corridor runs the length of the vessel. It is almost 1,300 feet long. As you look down this corridor, it looks completely stable. At sea the vessel moves in six different directions simultaneously. So the design of the vessel is to flex, and you can actually, as you’re walking through this corridor, watch this vessel ebb and flow or hog and sag as it goes through the water,” McCarthy said.

CMA CGM is in the midst of a kind of global arms race among shipping companies to build bigger and bigger container ships.

“When you look at the amount of weight that retail has on the economy, you will find that the role that container shipping lines play is extremely important. And so we need to be able to grow with the market to sustain the economy as well overall,” said Marc Bourdon, president of CMA CGM America.

A tour of the deck of the CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin. Photo by Frances Anderton.
A tour of the deck of the ship.

Bourdon told us these ships are new to the U.S. because the ports are only now building the infrastructure to handle this kind of traffic. The Port of Long Beach is in the midst of a $4 billion overhaul of the port. That includes expanding Middle Harbor with deeper docks and bigger cranes, and replacing the Gerald Desmond Bridge.

The port was expecting to wait a couple years before the mega ships arrived.

So they threw a big party to welcome the Ben Franklin. It began with a performance by a local a cappella group, singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “The Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.

This hallway spans the hull of the ship, and is 1,300 feet long.
This hallway spans the hull of the ship, and is 1,300 feet long.

Shipping executives and local officials delivered speeches full of excitement. Among them, Lori Ann Guzmán, president of The Board of Harbor Commissioners.

“It’s as wide as a 12-lane freeway. And this is a fascinating statistic. It is able to hold 90 million pairs of shoes,” Guzmán said. “And for those of us who love our stilettos, that is just an amazing statistic. Many of them, these shoes, probably headed to a WalMart near you.”

Clearly WalMart has a stake in the millions of shoes. The ceremony ended with Shelley McMillon, the wife of WalMart CEO Doug McMillon, christening the ship with a bottle of champagne.

Now, this all sounded like the beginning of quite a spectacular business agreement.

But despite all that pomp and circumstance, in late April CMA CGM announced they are canceling plans to send mega-ships between Asia and the U.S. west coast. The company says it’s because of weak market conditions in the trans-pacific market.

But that doesn’t change the fact that bigger is the future for container shipping – the biggest mega-ships now carry up to 20,000 TEUs.

Descending the stairs of the ship.
Descending the stairs of the ship.

And it’s the vast scale of today’s transportation of goods — how the 90 million pairs of shoes, for example, makes its way from inception to Walmart to our homes — that has intrigued the journalist Edward Humes.

His latest book is “Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.” It looks at the overlapping impact of the movement of people and of goods.

“Transportation is a major contributor to carbon emissions. There’s really no question about that,” Humes said. “And these giant container ships are a major source of emissions. Two to three percent of global carbon emissions come from the container fleets. And we’re talking about 6,000 ships. They burn massive amounts of incredibly dirty fuel. If you look at their emissions of particulates and smog-causing emissions. One hundred and sixty of those megaships is the equivalent of every car in the world. That’s 160 out of 6,000. So they’re massive emitters of all kinds of unfortunate substances and they exist because that’s how we move our goods.”

A console panel of the ship. We didn't push the button.
A console panel of the ship. We didn’t push the button.

Humes adds that these ships are so massive, the carbon footprint of each product shipped by boat is relatively small. However, the shipping industry is highly inefficient. About 79 percent of the energy used in shipping is wasted, he said. And while the industry likes to tout its efforts to be more sustainable, they use a type of fuel that contributes heavily to air pollution.

“These ships burn a product called bunker fuel and I think you could describe that fairly as the stuff that’s left there over after everything more useful has been extracted from petroleum. It’s like asphalt. You can walk on it. In fact the ships have to warm it up just so that it becomes a fluid so they can burn it. As fuels go, it’s incredibly dirty,” Humes said.

“But [there’s] still a tremendous environmental footprint attached to moving goods that distance in that way. And it’s not always accounted for. No country claims those emissions. When we do these worldwide assessments of what the cargo fleets emissions are because it happens outside international boundaries. So they’re off the literally off the books, even though if the shipping fleet were a country it would be among the top ten emitters in the world, ahead of Germany, the fourth largest economy on the planet. The shipping fleet is a greater source of carbon than in Germany. And yet it doesn’t count, so to speak.”

Read an excerpt from “Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation” here.