The secret lives of lost shipping containers–and the lives they support



I wonder how many shipping containers “lost at sea” actually end up stolen? It’s a perfectly convenient, believable, and unverifiable excuse for why that shipping container full of sports cars or whatever else is missing.

Good article on an important and fascinating topic. I fantasize about using an old cargo container as a human dwelling, but like marine life (maybe), I find the containers have lots of really inconvenient features mixed in with the extreme convenience of a weathertight, secure structure of very nice size delivered to my site for under $2,000.

Two copy suggestions: “based on” instead of “based off of”, and “contaminants” instead of “contaminates.”


Could the potential consequences of a lost shipping container depend as much on what’s in the shipping container as the container itself? That’s something I’m curious about, although given that there’s only one that can really be studied for now that seems like an impossible question to answer.

Hopefully though this one will give us some insight into how quickly the container’s exterior could be breached, and what the possible results of that are.

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Doesn’t whale carcasses also create “stepping stones” for invasive species? Maybe not as long-lived though…

The wikipedia article on “Whale Falls” (or whale carcasses in ultra-deep waters) indicates that we’ve only found such carcasses since the 1970s, so research on that topic is unfortunately pretty thin (as Maggie indicates in her essay). Also, the article mentioned that the bones might last 100 years before being entirely eaten away, although what that might mean in the face of the deep-water lifespan of a shipping container is one for the scientists.

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I know this isn’t the point of the story but I find it fascinating that this type of shipping remains cost-effective even with so many containers being lost in transit. Each container might hold more merchandise than I could afford with my life’s savings but such a vast quantity is being shipped, it’s still just a blip on the balance sheets.

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There are only two alternatives to container shipping though, not shipping at all (which would make an even bigger blip on the balance sheets) and hand packing stuff into cargo ships/planes/trucks like in the old days, which was exceedingly expensive and slow.

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So, what is in this container???

I find it fascinating that this type of shipping remains cost-effective

I think its kind of the only game in town. How else to get 3,000,000 pairs of tube socks from China to San Francisco?

True. They could put fewer containers on each ship so they’re more secure. I marvel at the scale of the operation and the fact that losing up to 10,000 containers a year is acceptable provides a particular perspective on that scale.

That 10,000 container figure is probably misleading. Many of those are lost or stolen, sometimes by pirates, and don’t end up on the ocean floor. Sometimes a whole ship sinks and sends several thousand down in the same area. There are certainly some that blow off of the top of the ship during storms too, but its not thousands per year.


Practically speaking, there aren’t a lot of places where you can offload a multi-ton metal box that is between 20 and 40 feet long. Especially out at sea. (And you can only access a few of them, since they are packed so tightly together and only have doors on one end.) And once you get in close to shore the driving of the ship is passed to a local pilot whose only goal is to get the thing safely docked.

I’m sure people WANT to steal containers, but the opportunity simply isn’t there when you are at sea.


The whole time I am thinking, “What’s in the box?!? Come on… what’s in the box??”


Spell check: paragraph 6, “unvegitated” should be unvegetated

How about while you’re NOT at sea?

Maybe you’re in a port where you can bribe people. Maybe the ship leaves port with fewer crates than it has listed on the manifest. Or maybe it leaves port with the proper amount, but when it arrives some get unloaded and moved somewhere they isn’t meant to go, and are claimed “lost in transit”.

I think the word “offload” might be too genteel a term to use. “Shove a few containers off the end of a row and hope that at least one floats, then empty it into the fishing boat” might be a more accurate description of modern high-seas piracy. As far as pilfering in-port goes, similar techniques work but it’s more difficult to hide the evidence.

The technology’s here, we just have to make it bigger.


I, too, want to know “what’s in the fucking box?!”

Great article, btw.

Yes, great article. Hope you explore this more–these containers permeate our lives, are vectors for invasives and even illegal immigrants I’ve heard (sounds like a terrifying way to travel/die). Being “intermodal”–from truck to train to ship means a lot stuff is changing places.

I’m afraid we’ll end up with a world with a couple dozen super-invasive species everywhere.

We moved from the midwest to mid-Pacific last year via a 20-footer. We know now we brought various species of mold and mildew that liked the new climate, but what else? I’m also seeing locals using something I just learned are Intermediate bulk containers, which can move liquids and stack about 2 across x 2 up inside shipping containers. They’re generally about 4’cubic give or take. Seem very hackable.

Also, folks here re-use wooden shipping pallets in cool ways. In LA I saw them turned into great store displays. But what else travels in that wood? Where did that wood come from?

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