As Idle as a Painted Ship

Over at ’The Disorder of Things’, guest blogger Charmaine Chua presented a fascinating piece of ethnographic research, detailing her travels as a passenger on a container ship. The researcher’s journey was from Los Angeles, USA to Taipei, Taiwan. At €100 per night, given that it takes around a month to make a one-way trip, this is never going to challenge business class air transport… but I have to admit that I’m envious. Just imagine how much writing you could get done in all those days of sea and sky! Above all, though, it’s a window on the fascinating and seldom-seen world of the merchant marine. Few jobs have changed as much as this one, where sailors once talked of shore leave in exotic destinations and now grind their way endlessly around the globe, on bigger ships with smaller crews…

Chua anonymised the vessel that transported her, and its crew, which is a good thing for a researcher to do when describing how the people she studied earn their livelihood. For the ship, she chose the fictional name ‘Ever Cthulhu’, which I have to admit grew on me as I read my way through the five-part series. There should be more ships named after Lovecraftian monsters.

The life of a modern-day seaman, as described, doesn’t appear to be an attractive choice. As Samuel Johnson once said, “Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” It seems the largely Filipino crew concur as they liken a typical cycle of six months at sea to being incarcerated. I already knew that a shipboard life could be grim (I spent some time studying the lot of workers in the cruise industry last year…) but I think that life on a cargo vessel is possibly worse, because there’s less of a requirement to keep up appearances.

Of greatest interest to me was the description of the “traffic jams” and delays experienced at the west coast ports of Tacoma, Oakland and Los Angeles, with many ships waiting days to dock and then suffering through a lengthy process of unloading and loading. It appears that while bigger and bigger ships make sense from a purely economic viewpoint, what works on paper doesn’t always work in the real world. Even with a gargantuan effort to modernise ports in order to accommodate the new generation of megaships (because no port wants to find itself sidelined) the efforts to dredge channels deeper and raise cranes higher doesn’t guarantee success. The whole logistic system needs to keep pace, including the road and rail services… and something isn’t working.

Cargo ships at anchor

Cargo ships at anchor near Los Angeles [photo: Los Angeles Times]

“Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean.”

This little bit of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (as you might expect, it’s from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner) gave me the title for today’s blog post. Anyway, back to Chua and her observations:

“Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2½ to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.”

As a person who likes to use simulation to investigate logistics problems, this is fascinating. I’m itching to construct some models, and investigate the bottlenecks in a system that is worsening as a result of ever-larger ships introducing increasingly lumpy arrival patterns. It’s a problem that might get still worse with the completion of a third set of locks on the Panama canal; present-day vessels taking that route are constrained to specifications that have remained unchanged since the canal opened a century ago, but the new construction will permit an increase from the present Panamax constraint of around 5,000 TEU to a new limit of perhaps 13,000 TEU. There is also work underway to construct another canal, cutting through Nicaragua… and there are plans afoot to expand the Suez canal as well.

Panamax ship


In Tacoma, when no dockworkers arrive to unload the Ever Cthulhu, Chua opines that “a quiet port is logistics’ nightmare”. More accurately perhaps, it’s the simultaneous arrival of 8,100 twenty-foot equivalent units at a single berth that is the nightmare. If everything was to be loaded onto trucks, you’d have a queue almost sixty-five kilometres long… but that isn’t to say that trucks are always the bottleneck. If anybody that’s reading wants to offer some data (or assistance, or funding!) for a piece of research by simulation, consider me interested.

Chua claims that a failure to shift cargo at the rate that port employers would like to achieve is down to problems of infrastructure, and that dockworkers are scapegoated. This is borne out by observers such as Bloomberg Business, who report:

“While most of the attention around the port crisis has focused on labor, the cargo bottlenecks predate the labor stalemate and will outlast a settlement … Backups began in August, about two months before the Pacific Maritime Association accused unionized dockworkers of deliberately slowing down cargo movement.”

It seems that nobody is terribly happy in the 21st century box-shifting industry, and that’s important. Along with a failure to handle all the goods now arriving, and the facts and figures detailing environmental concerns such as the toxicity of heavy fuel oil, the toxic nature of “sludge” and the disposal of grey water and food waste by offshore dumping, there’s a human cost being paid by those who perform lonely, often menial and sometimes dangerous jobs, with little or no job security. In the industry we depend upon for the transportation of 90% of the world’s freight, that’s something that needs to be understood.

Cargoes, revisited

If you think back to your school days, I believe there’s a good chance that you were exposed to John Masefield’s poem, Cargoes

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

– John Masefield (1878–1967)

Masefield published that in his 1903 book Ballads.

Now, I’m no poet laureate (as you will soon discover) but I set myself the task of bringing Masefield’s poem up to date. Blame it on the jet-lag, as I sit sleepless in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur…

Masefield could have done the job himself, as modern container shipping is generally held to have commenced in April 1956, at which point the poet still had eleven years ahead of him.

A former sailor, Masefield wrote much about the sea, but he never did attempt to expand Cargoes, so here’s my own attempt at a fourth stanza:

Vast modern cargo ship with flag of convenience,
Squeezing through Panama with no time to lose,
With a cargo of acronyms,
Barcodes, jargon,
Product-service offerings and TEUs.

I detected in the original a steady decline from the exotic quinquireme (carrying apes and peacocks, no less!) through the Spanish galleon, and down to the British coaster with its cargo of mundanity. I’d like to think I maintained that downward trend, into dreary and anonymous box-shifting.

But… my goodness! Haven’t those boxes shrunk the world?


Asian long-horned beetle [photo: Kyle Ramirez]

Invasive Species: Stowaways in the Supply Chain

The supply chain you operate may be delivering more than you bargained for, if the goods or materials you ship are accompanied by pests that have hitched a ride.

Despite your best efforts to operate a low-carbon, ethical business, people won’t remember you fondly if you introduce an invasive species. In simple terms, that’s a plant or animal that isn’t native to a particular place, and that subsequently thrives. The consequences for native plants and wildlife can be devastating, threatening local biodiversity, harming local industry and providing a huge headache for the people who try to clean up the outbreak.

Thankfully, we’re a bit less naïve about this issue nowadays. It’s still possible to buy some exotic plants or pets, have them escape from your garden and multiply halfway across the country, but the dangers are at least recognised. Since April 1st 2014 you can no longer buy floating pennywort (or four other plants) in an English garden centre – although you can probably find plenty of the stuff choking a nearby canal or lake.

Floating pennywort

Floating pennywort

Modern biosecurity policies represent quite a change from the mid-nineteenth century, when European settlers formed ‘Acclimatisation Societies’ to make the colonies seem more familiar. They introduced plants to make their gardens feel more like home, and they introduced animals too; in order to hunt them for food, for economic reasons, or just to make the landscape ‘look right’… and they didn’t understand the damage that the introduction of a few rabbits would do to Australia – nor that of taking possums from Australia and introducing them to New Zealand.

Truckload of dead possums

Cruel, or necessary? It’s a question of perspective. Disposing of possums in New Zealand, where they carry bovine tuberculosis and pose a terrible threat to biodiversity.

All too often, the results are catastrophic. Invasive species thrive when they find themselves in a place where their traditional predators don’t exist, and where the new things they choose to eat have no defence against them. Competition between species is nothing new of course: everything that still exists has a long, long history of competing for space, for sunlight, for food and so on, but the modern-day pace of change is a hundred times faster than when the distribution of organisms was based upon mechanisms such as coconuts falling in the ocean and being washed up on strange shores. With international trade comes the international distribution of invasive species.

As I mentioned back in August, an awful lot of wood gets used for packaging materials such as pallets. According to Wax [2014] making pallets and the like in the USA accounts for a staggering 44% of US hardwood production. That’s bad enough in itself, but a pallet also offers in-transit accommodation and catering for certain burrowing insects.

The emerald ash borer (agrilus planipennis) is native to Asia and Eastern Russia, but in June 2002 they were found in Michigan, USA, having arrived in shipping materials. Once in North America they multiplied rapidly, finding that the local ash trees had little resistance and there were no predators or parasites to threaten them. It is expected that the emerald ash borer will ultimately kill most American ash trees – a process that takes about ten years, but is too rapid to allow the ash to produce seedlings before it succumbs. The cost of fighting the infestation (not winning, just fighting) is estimated by Kovacs et al [2010] to be $10.7 billion over a ten-year period.

Pallets should be treated before being moved across a national boundary, either with heat (130° F for half an hour) or with methyl bromide – a highly toxic substance that attacks the ozone layer as well. Only its importance in biosecurity has kept it from being phased out… but one can’t help feeling that (as so often in the sustainability field) we’re trying to solve one problem by introducing another.

“I know an old lady who swallowed a fly…”

It’s not just pallets that pick up hitchhikers, though: any ship that takes on ballast water, in order to manage its stability, and subsequently discharges that water elsewhere may have given a free ride to a vast quantity of plants, animals, viruses or bacteria.

When zebra mussels showed up in the Great Lakes (USA / Canada) in 1988, it was clear these fingernail-sized natives of the Caspian Sea hadn’t got there of their own accord: they’d either been transported in ballast water, or (less likely) attached themselves to an anchor or chain. The total cost of the zebra mussel invasion, to date, is estimated at $5 billion.

Zebra mussels

Zebra mussels attach themselves to any hard surface, causing considerable damage to vessels and pipes… as well as edging out native species.

The International Maritime Organization has done a lot to slow the transfer of invasive species via ballast water, but acknowledges that the problem may not have peaked yet: the incidence of outbreaks continues to increase with the growth in seaborne trade. Their list of the “ten most unwanted” makes depressing reading.

I first became alerted to ballast water as a vector during my study of the cruise industry, but if you think about it, a cruise ship is probably going to discharge less ballast water than a cargo ship, because its all-up weight isn’t going to vary all that much from one port of call to the next. Nonetheless, Klein [2008] reports that noncompliance with ballast water regulations in California led to Carnival Cruise Lines paying a $200,000 administrative fee to settle with the California State Lands Commission.

For everybody involved, it seems that biosecurity is a lot cheaper when you get it right first time.



Klein, R.A. (2008) ‘Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas’, Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers

Kovacs, K.F., Haight, R.G., McCullough D.G., Mercader, R.J., Siegert, N.W. and Liebhold, A.M. (2010) ‘Cost of potential emerald ash borer damage in U.S. communities, 2009–2019’, Ecological Economics 69, 569–578 [available online]

Wax, J. (2014) ‘99 Percent Invisible: Wooden Pallets Carry Environmental Costs Along with Their Loads’ Earth Island Journal, January 10th, 2014 [available online]

Smell Sells

Molton Brown has become one of the UK’s more successful toiletries firms, selling upmarket smellies. They’re a warranted “Supplier of Toiletries” to Her Majesty The Queen – and just as importantly in our household, it’s the brand of choice for Mrs. Farr.

This is a good thing, because it means that I always have one idea for what to buy when a birthday or anniversary approaches. ‘Pink Pepperpod’ is the smell of choice, and I have to say it’s quite lovely. Mind you, at £18 for 300ml of body wash, it had better be good.

Pink Pepperpod. Highly recommended.

Pink Pepperpod: highly recommended.

That’s the interesting thing about cosmetics: it’s an industry where you know that the product is being made in quantities akin to a small brewery… and yet the end product is packaged and sold in such a way as to make you feel that the contents are more precious than unicorn spit. From my schooling as a manufacturing engineer, I know that most of any shower gel is water with an awful lot of salt dissolved in it. I know that toothpaste is mostly ground up rock, too. That’s not to say that the ‘clever’ part of blending ingredients to create the right flavour or scent isn’t very clever indeed. Even bleach can have as many as forty chemical ingredients added, simply for the purpose of making it smell as if it will kill germs.

Molton Brown won’t show you their manufacturing process. They were awarded BUAV certification in February 2013, showing that their products are free from animal testing… but other than that, we loyal customers aren’t really supposed to look behind the curtain. Interestingly, though, rival UK cosmetic manufacturer Lush do reveal how their products are made. For example…

Lush still command a moderately high price point: you’d pay £15.95 for 500g of ‘Olive Branch’ shower gel, for example… but their marketing and presentation are somewhat different to Molton Brown.

At the end of the day, whatever you choose, it’s going to be mostly water and salt, in a plastic bottle – although a recent item in the BBC News Magazine claims that solid bars of soap are more luxurious because “You can tie attractive bars of soap up in silk ribbons and present them as a gift to a loved one – the effect isn’t quite the same when you do this with a liquid dispenser.”

It’s interesting to be able to consider not just the packaging for a product, but the actual format that is employed, to deliver much the same result (being clean, and scented). There are a lot of options here: older readers might remember when toothpaste came as a solid block, in a tin…

Packaging and presentation are particularly important when you’re selling cosmetics, because you’re charging unicorn-spit prices for salty water, with chemicals added in a process that’s no more complicated than it is for the people manufacturing bleach… and that doesn’t leave much room in which to derive a unique selling proposition. Manufacturers need to schmooze their customer a little bit here.

Or not. Here’s my most recent consignment:

The complimentary ‘gift box’ was torn, and with its packing peanuts, didn’t exactly reek of luxury.

The complimentary gift box was torn, so I didn’t pass it on. Filled out with packing peanuts, it didn’t exactly reek of luxury anyway.

Crumpled delivery note. When I’m spending seventy quid on “salty water”, I generally expect it to at least appear to have been handled with care.

A crumpled delivery note. When I’m spending seventy quid on salty water I generally expect at least the appearance that my order has been handled with care.

It does smell nice, though.

Packaging Peculiarity: the Edible Cup

How do you address the twin problems of green image and the need to do something quirky in order to generate a buzz on the Internet?

If you’re KFC (or Kentucky Fried Chicken, for people my age) you introduce the edible coffee cup: a concoction made from biscuit, rice paper and temperature-resistant white chocolate. Finish your coffee, and you can chow down on the cup. And why not? A hundred and ten years ago, ice cream retail underwent a similar revolution when it was discovered that customers didn’t need to be given a bowl and a spoon, merely a conical wafer.

2015: enter the ‘Scoff-ee cup’ – and for once the UK doesn’t need to wait for something the USA had first. Quite the opposite, as the cups are planned for trials in the UK first. (Is my island now considered to serve as a testbed for Uncle Sam? That marks an interesting development in itself… or perhaps we’re simply less litigious over here.)

As for the cups themselves, they’re still under development. At this time I can’t tell you about the flavour, nor how many calories the cup is expected to deliver. What we do know is some of the aromas that freaky experimental foodie consultancy The Robin Collective have proposed for the cups, including coconut sun cream, freshly cut grass, and wild flowers. That coffee should actually smell like coffee is out, it seems. Given that the whole exercise is largely a gimmick conducted in order to announce that KFC will be selling Seattle Best Coffee (a Starbucks brand) this seems like something of a mixed message.

Anyway, you finish your drink, and then you get to eat the biscuity cup. To my mind, this is a bit backwards: if I’ve just eaten a chocolate biscuit and some rice paper, I’d be looking for a drink to wash it down. But maybe that’s just a fiendishly clever way to drum up repeat business.

Cardboard and biscuit-based coffee cups compared

Om nom.

In terms of sustainability, an edible cup is probably worse than a cardboard one (never mind the health effects; I’m thinking of the embodied water in materials such as chocolate) but at least it’s biodegradable. An edible cup won’t end up floating around in the ocean for decades like a plastic one.

The cups that have been shown to-date are thick-walled and that means they won’t nest at all well, so a consignment of cups will be bulky, leading to expensive and more carbon-intensive transportation… but the real job of this cup is to provide viral advertising – just like the silly stories of a drone-based delivery system that Amazon generated so much hype with, shortly before Christmas 2013.

Of course the Internet is fickle, and you never know if your innovation will go viral, or if it’ll just be mocked. For Amazon, a particularly classy piece of mockery comes from Audi, with their new advert for the A6…  and for KFC, there’s a piece in The Onion. Also, an honourable mention must go to Sαrαh Dαvis of Georgia Southern University (twitter: @sarahkate678) who wrote the following:

“KFC is now making a coffee cup that will be edible…. No word yet on when they’ll make their chicken edible.”

In search of some Miracle Gro for the ‘Green Shoots of Recovery’

An ambitious EU-funded project is beginning (the official launch is in April) aimed at demonstrating sustainable urban regeneration. In the European project tradition it has a funny, pseudo-acronymic name, in this case REMOURBAN: REgeneration MOdel for accelerating the smart URBAN transformation. Maybe it trips off the tongue better in some other language…



Featuring an impressive “who’s who” of project partners, five cities are involved: Nottingham (UK), Valladolid (Spain) and Tepebaşı/Eskişehir (Turkey), with Seraing (Belgium) and Miskolc (Hungary) as “follower cities”. The project will “transform urban life”, according to the CORDIS information service. Targets include energy savings of 40% and the avoidance of 50% of CO2 emissions. Impressive… but what does it actually involve?

The planned regeneration work is aimed in particular at low-carbon heating and transport, with ICT as an enabler. The cities involved share a common feature: that of district heating… which isn’t all that common outside of Iceland (where geothermal energy makes it an obvious choice). Meeting heat and hot water requirements centrally instead of leaving homes and businesses to make their own arrangements typically delivers higher efficiencies, and facilitates a move towards better emissions controls and the incorporation of renewables such as solar energy and biomass.

Practitioners generally agree that efficient energy generation is all very well but a big chunk of going ‘green’ must involve using less. In REMOURBAN this is reflected in the desire to demonstrate substantial improvements in insulation – not through the construction of a handful of fabulous modern ‘eco houses’, but by making improvements to the existing housing stock, which in Nottingham includes many older buildings that don’t have cavity walls. This is significant; a project that tackles the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.

Another strand to the project comes in the form of sustainable transport, with electric buses and delivery vehicles, plus hourly car hire schemes. As with district heating, electric and hybrid vehicles in public transport seem to be a good starting point for green initiatives, because the higher initial investment (and expensive mid-life replacement of batteries) needn’t be prohibitive, since they aren’t borne by individuals.

electric buses

You wait half a century for an electric bus, and then several turn up all at once. (In this case, in Beijing.)

Joining it all together is information and communications technology. CORDIS tells us that “smart, joined-up thinking is key to urban renewal” and since the project is funded under the Smart Cities and Communities call, it’s clear that ‘smart’ will be a big part of these sustainable cities. In addition to ICT playing a role in improvements to transportation, retrofitted houses will include smart meters, providing better information to the energy providers and also to consumers. One has to hope that REMOURBAN introduces smart meters that are better than the current crop, which have been met with bafflement from some householders, and considerable resistance from others. Concerns include high costs, the invasion of privacy, security risks (for instance, a meter reporting when your house is empty), and the new ability for utility companies to turn services on and off remotely, without gaining access to the property. Given that 65% of the households under study (I’m thinking of Nottingham in particular, here) are social housing, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the people that the project calls “have-not citizens” can be engaged.

I think there are two ways to interpret “sustainable urban regeneration”. Are we only talking about urban regeneration that has a ‘green’ element? That’s commendable enough in itself, but the other way to interpret the phrase would mean it offers urban renewal that is itself sustainable, and sustained. A future-proofed city?

Five years from now, when the project is all done, It’ll be interesting to see just how much sustainable renewal has been delivered for €21.5m. (When you’re on one of these EU projects you’re acutely aware that it’s taxpayers’ money…) Will this injection of funds have primed the pump, and shown how best to renew other cities across Europe? I’m impressed by the pragmatism of an approach that builds upon existing systems rather than the clean-slate infrastructure we might wish to have. I’m also pleased to see a project looking at how “have-not” citizens can move towards sustainability, because too many people still dismiss ‘green’ thinking as a middle class phenomenon. If it’s true that 24% of UK households are in fuel poverty (defined as needing to spend more than 10% of household income for an adequate heating regime) perhaps climate change begins at home.

We shall see.