Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Thursday, 20 November 2008

Anatomy of the Box

Most of the world's non-bulk cargo travels in marine shipping containers - like the BBC Box.

Anatomy of the Box

The reinforced steel boxes come in standardised sizes with standard fittings so they can be stacked on ships, trains and lorries.

There are a range of sizes but container ship capacity is measured in TEUs or Twenty-foot Equivalent Units units based on the smaller 20ft [6.1m] x 8 ft [2.4 m] x 8.5 ft [2.6m] containers.


The BBC Box is an FEU [Forty-foot Equivalent Unit - or two TEUs] - the most commonly-used size of container today.

More specialised containers include top or side-opening containers, tank containers for liquids or refrigeration containers [also known as reefers].

Containers each have their own number, with a prefix to identify its owner.

The BBC Box's first shipment from the UK to China was 15,120 bottles of 12-year-old Chivas Scotch whisky.

Emma Maersk container ship
The Emma Maersk is approximately a quarter of a mile long

The containers can be stacked eight high on the decks of some container ships, and up to 11 on top of each other.

One of the largest container ships in the world at present is the Danish-built Emma Maersk which is reported to be able to carry between 11,000 and 15,000 TEUs.

South Korean maritime architects are designing a vessel that can carry 22,000.


The use of containers has transformed the global cargo trade and there are now around 4,000 container ships travelling between international ports.

Cargo routes

Container cargo has also led to improvements in the speed and handling efficiency at ports, leading to lower costs.

The largest container trade route east to west is the Transpacific, followed by the Far East-Europe route and the Transatlantic.

China has become one of the main global suppliers and handles more containers than any other nation.

The top six busiest ports in 2006 were in Asia, three of them in China.

The Suez Canal plays a vital role in routes to and from Europe - a ship that passes along the 162km (101 mile) Suez Canal is saved a 9,654km circumnavigation of Africa; the average journey time cut from 20 days to just 13 hours.

Busiest shipping route

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