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EXPLORE NORTHEASTERN

Modern shipping containers are a bit like Legos — you can take them off a ship and snap them perfectly onto a truck or train. This relatively simple innovation, which started in the 1950s, has allowed global trade to go gangbusters.

“It was in 1992 when 100 million containers moved through all the world’s ports, then in 1998, we went to 200 million,” said Stephen Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University in Boston. “Roughly we’re at a little over 600 million today.

So just between the events of 9/11 and the events of today, you almost have a three-fold [increase] of volume moving through the world’s ports.”

Container shipping is a big part of the reason why, when we visit the grocery store, fresh apples, avocados and bananas are all available 365 days a year. Yes, there are environmental and social costs to having pretty much anything we want on demand, shipped from across the planet. But let’s leave that debate for another day and focus on what made the global trade dance possible: container ships.

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