Felixstowe, and how containerisation has changed the world.

Felixstowe is located on the east coast of England in the county of Suffolk. Geography Cat visited the town specifically to see the Port of Felixstowe.

Shipping carries around 90% of world trade with an estimated 100 000 ships at sea at any time. One of the largest international shipping companies is Maersk, whose annual revenues rival that of Microsoft at over $60billion.

Prior to the invention of containerisation, goods to be traded were carried in wooden crates or as loose bulk. This meant trade was very slow and that cargoes were vulnerable to theft. Many ships used to spend longer in the dock than at sea.

Malcolm McLean invented the container in 1956 and the process of containerisation was globally standardised in the late 1960s. Containers are strong and secure, they minimise losses due to theft and increase the efficiency of moving goods, making it much faster and much cheaper.

The cost of moving loose cargo is $5.83 per tonne compared to $0.16 of containerised tonnage. In 1965 docks could move 1.7 tonnes per hour, but standardised containerisation increased this to 30 tonnes per hour by 1970. This means that ships spend a much shorter time in dock and more time at sea transporting goods. Containerisation has made inland distribution by road and rail faster and easier too, therefore fewer ports are needed. There were 11 major loading ports in Europe in 1965 and only 3 by 1970!

Research into trade between 22 industrialised countries has shown a 320% increase in bilateral trade in the first 5 years of containerisation, and a 790% increase over 20 years. This is a much bigger boost to trade than a free trade agreement for example, which is estimated to increase bilateral trade by just 45% over 20 years.

Total world trade has increased by twenty seven times what it was in 1950, 90% of this is carried by shipping. Containers on lorries can be driven onto and off a ferry, this is called ro-ro (roll on-roll off), containers that are moved by cranes onto and off ships, trains and lorries are called lo-lo (lift on- lift off) and required a whole new redesign of infrastructure for ports and docklands.

Felixstowe is the largest UK containerised port; it handles 2 million containers a year from 4000 ships that have sailed from 365 different ports. It is regularly dredged to keep the waterway free.

Containerisation has allowed for the growth of Just in Time working practices. Just in Time (JIT) is a strategy of delivering materials or components to the place of manufacture immediately before they are needed, and then shipping the product away from the factory as soon as it is done. In this way the factory can be smaller as it does not need space for storage, therefore manufacturing becomes cheaper.

Prior to the recent widening of sections of the Panama Canal (at a cost of $5billion), the width and draft of the canal was a limiting factor on the size of ships. The width has been increased from 32m to 49m, and the draft (depth of ship below the waterline) from 12 to 15m. Now the most limiting geographical point is the Malacca Straits, where the Pacific and Indian Oceans meet at Singapore. The shape of this seaway means ships using the straits cannot exceed 470m in length, nor 60 m in width.

Merchant shipping uses bunker fuel. This is very cheap and very polluting. It contains 2000 times the level of sulphur permitted in diesel fuel and in fact, the 15 largest ships in the world pollute the environment as much as all the cars in the world! Shipping noise damages the acoustic habitat of ocean life, which has a severe impact on breeding and feeding, and overall survival of many marine species.

*All photographs in this blog post are Geography Cat’s own.

2 Replies to “Felixstowe, and how containerisation has changed the world.”

  1. It is astounding that each if those loaded containers gets to its designated destination!

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