Ten Legitimately Fascinating Facts About the Shipping Industry

Almost 90 percent of everything we buy arrives via ship, writes Rose George in her actually mind-blowing new book Ninety Percent of Everything, which covers her adventures with the shipping industry — the biggest business that you know nothing about.

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Almost 90 percent of everything we buy arrives via ship, writes Rose George in her actually mind-blowing new book Ninety Percent of Everything, published tomorrow, which covers her months-long adventure with the shipping industry — the biggest business that you know nothing about.

George, a British journalist and author of an entire 326-page book about poop and pee, spent months traveling the ocean on various massive ships the length of football fields and the height of Niagara Falls to report this book on shipping, which she calls "the invisible industry":

"These ships and boxes belong to a business that feeds, clothes, warms, and supplies us. They have fueled if not created globalization. They are the reason behind your cheap T-shirt and reasonably priced television. But who looks behind a television now and sees the ship that brought it? Who cares about the men who steered your breakfast cereal through winter storms? How ironic that the more ships have grown in size and consequence, the less space they take up in our imagination."

With its wide scope, voice of intellectual curiosity, and inter-ocean adventure, the book is reminiscent of Donovan Hohn's popular Moby Duck, which followed the path of 28,000 bath toys lost at sea after a shipping container capsized. Much as Hohn did in his book, George travels the world to show that shipping is actually pretty interesting.

We sailed, as it were, through the book to bring you the Top 10 Most Fascinating Facts About the Shipping Industry:

1. Shipping is the "greenest" mass transport

Compared to the energy expended moving goods by plane or truck, shipping is far less damaging in terms of greenhouse gases released: "Sending a container from Shanghai to Le Havre (France) emits fewer greenhouse gases than the truck that takes the container on to Lyon." However, the shipping industry is so big that, if you added shipping to the list of the world's most polluting countries, it would come in sixth place. So it's not exactly environmentally beneficial. Plus, ships can't do this:

2. Ships are incredibly big 

The largest container ship can carry 15,000 boxes, which would hold 746 million bananas. This would be about one banana for every person in Europe. (And a few animals, too.) [See update]

3. Ships cover the oceans

At least 20 million containers are currently traveling across the oceans. That's a lot of bananas!

4. Shipping is a huge source of revenue

Economically, the shipping industry is monstrous in its size. In the United Kingdom, shipping accounts for more of the GDP than restaurants, takeaway food, and civil engineering combined — about 2 percent of the GDP by itself, just behind construction.

5. Pirates are dangerous and prevalent

The rate of attacks on seafarers by pirates (for example, off the coast of Somalia) was higher last year than violent assaults in South Africa, which has the highest level of crime in the world.

6. Shipping is incredibly cheap.

It's less expensive to ship Scottish cod 10,000 miles away to China to be filleted and then sent back to Scotland than it is to pay Scottish filleters to do the job. Of course, this reflects mostly on the cheapness of Chinese labor, but it does also show shipping's low costs.

7. Inspection of containers is rare.

Remember the second season of The Wire, in which the dockworkers sketchily smuggled in drugs and prostitutes via shipping containers? Well, George's book shows why that would be so easy. Only 5 percent of the containers shipped to U.S. ports are physically inspected, and that number is even lower in Europe. This probably would help explain Jack Sparrow's common question.

8. The oceans are vast.

A container ship travels the equivalent of three-quarters of the way to the moon and back in one year during its regular travel across the oceans.

9. Shipping companies don't like outsiders.

Shipping companies are so secretive and private that, for example, the official Greek shipowners' association refuses to reveal how many members it actually has. And, George points out, that's not considered weird in the industry.

10. Shipworker demographics are extremely predictable.

On average, the typical shipworker is a male Filipino; Filipinos make up one third of all shipworkers, and men constitute 98 percent of the work force. As a British, white female, author Rose George was thus very much an outlier on her sea journeys.

But these are just statistics, and George personalizes them in the book as, according to the jacket copy, "she joins seafaring chaplains, patrols the Indian Ocean with an antipiracy task force, and investigates the harm that fishing trawlers are inflicting on endangered whales." Meanwhile, the rest of us will sit in our shipped office chairs, wearing our shipped clothing, eating our shipped bananas, and working on our shipped computers. What a life.

Update: The author herself Rose George notes that the latest and greatest shipping vessel, the Maersk Triple-E, arrived for use just last month and holds up to 18,000 containers, an increase on the previous largest ship's 15,000-large inventory.

GIF of truck: Reddit/User: MarshallMx; photo of ship containers by TCLY via Shutterstock; photo of ocean by Don Fink via Shutterstock.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.