Imagine this: A small digger and a flotilla of tugboats trying to push one of the largest shipping vessels ever made down a narrow waterway, leaving little room for error.
This is what happened in March 2020 when the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal, blocking all traffic for 6 days until it could be freed.
A beast 400 meters long and almost 60 metres wide, (which is the equivalent of 4 football pitches!) the Ever Given was, at the time, carrying approximately 18,300 containers. Inside them, a bunch of very diverse items: from lemons, tofu and bamboo to Ikea furniture, barbecues and garden gnomes.
Exactly three years later (on Thursday 23rd of March 2023), another ultra-large container ship , equivalent in size to the one stuck in canal, was delivered to the Swiss container shipping giant MSC. A second one arrived shortly after, with a total of five megaships having been handed over and launched by the company in the past nine months  .
Since the invention of containers around 70 years ago, container ships have increased in capacity by almost 1,500% , but what has driven the industry to commission so many of these giant vessels?
Around 2010, the shipping industry, obsessed with size, wanted to show off their power and domination in trade, and built a container ship of enormous proportions, thinking that bigger ships meant cost advantageous savings . After all: the more containers they can carry, the cheaper it is in the long run.
However, this argument is debatable. Cost savings are decreasing more and more with the increasing size of mega container ships. The savings of the newest generation of mega-ships are four to six times smaller than earlier models [7,8]. Moreover, some of the savings that the newest generations of mega ships claim to make are less related to size itself, but rather to mechanical and operational improvements.
With a growing size comes a growing list of negative social and environmental impacts.
Ships of these proportions need facilities adapted to their size. Ports need bigger cranes, and larger installations to help them maneuver and dock. Only larger, richer ports can welcome them, leaving behind smaller, regional ports and their people.
Often, to make the waterways deeper and quay walls stronger to accommodate these giants, port authorities need to continuously remove sediment from the seabed. This, in turn, causes damage to marine ecosystems and local fisheries.
Other economically, socially and ecologically costly investments are needed to: handle the vessel, unload the cargo ,and get the ship in and out of port.
But the shipping companies that operate and make mega-profits from these vessels don’t foot this bill . The reality is that most ports around the world are totally or at least partially publicly owned, which means taxpayer’s money is going into these projects . An example of such practices is when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spent a colossal $1.7 billion of public funds to raise its Bayonne Bridge to accommodate the shipping scions’ new megaships .
For poorer countries that are already struggling with socio-economic difficulties, this can be a huge drain on public finance. Take Sri Lanka and its investment of $132 million in port development projects this year alone, while nearly half of the country’s families cannot afford food for their children [12,13].
As for the ports already equipped to handle mega ships, the average time at port can last between 36 to 60 hours (a lot longer than smaller size vessels, which spend on average between 7 to 30 hours). This means an increase in port congestion as more services need to occupy their time on these giants .
More cargo in a single ship also means more risk of supply chain disruptions.
The high seas are a very unreliable place: rough weather, equipment failure, accidents on board… All of these can mean huge delays and costs for everyone in the supply chain, especially when a giant ship is involved.
In addition to this, the increase in size of ships comes with higher risks in the event something goes really, really wrong.15 For example, fires in these large vessels are ‘relatively frequent’ but firefighting capabilities have not kept up with the upsizing of these vessels. Also, the larger the vessel, the more prone they are to losing containers at sea with all its implications [16,17], and in case of a major accident, a collision from a mega ship and a cruise ship could add up to $4 billion (wreck removal, crew liabilities, oil pollution removal…).
Coming back to the idea of economies of scale, the only way mega ships can make more money is when they are filled to the maximum. Actually, to achieve any significant savings, it is estimated that these vessels should be filled up to at least 91% of their total capacity. However, this is hard to reach even on the busiest routes. The Ever Given was only just at 91% capacity when it got stuck in the Suez Canal, and in a period of very high demand. And the Ever Atop, another colossal giant with a total capacity of 24,004 containers, was less than three-quarters full when it set sail on its maiden voyage through the Suez Canal to Europe . Operating under capacity undermines the whole premise of bigger ships being more profitable.
From a purely profit point of view, it’s clear that any potential savings brought about by megaships are diminished under the high operational and infrastructural costs.
And now we come to the cost that these mega ships have on our environment and the planet.
Starting with the construction and all the materials needed to create such giant beasts, to their impact at sea regarding air, water and noise pollution and their damage on biodiversity, with the need of port expansion to welcome these giant vessels, to the end of their life when they will be scrapped, most likely through the use of cheap labor and without proper and safe handling of the materials. It is evident that the lifecycle of these ships has a clear and impregnating impact on the climate and the planet.
Looking at all the facts, these megaships fail to live up to our expectations. So why does the shipping industry feel the need to keep going bigger and bigger?
We have plenty of alternatives which reduce our impact on marine biodiversity, gives better support to local economies, helps to reduce whale strikes, oil spills, green-house gases… The list goes on. And how? By relocalising and shortening supply chains, making ships go slower, retrofitting them, or even better, using a free, unlimited ‘fuel’ that is readily available at sea: wind. And above all, reconsidering what is really necessary to send in a container across the ocean, which may – or may not – be your garden gnome!
Long gone are the days when ships can claim that size matters and bigger is certainly not better.
Posted on: 4 April 2023