Putting Things in Boxes

Container ship passing through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific
Container ship passing through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal on its way to the Pacific

Metaphorically, coffee defies boxes, being more than a commodity or a beverage, being a plant, a lifestyle of production and consumption, a competitive sport, a delicacy, a right.

Literally, all coffee comes in boxes. Literally, it all arrives wherever it arrives in a box.


Boxes on board. Maybe there's some coffee in there?
Boxes on board. Maybe there’s some coffee in there?

The majority of coffee consumed in the world is consumed in countries other than those where it is produced. Often those countries are far away from each other (think the distance between Rio and Stockholm). Sometimes the distances are shorter, like between Vietnam and Japan, but all coffee travels and most of it travels pretty far to get from where it was picked and processed to where it’s roasted and served.

And it always travels in boxes. If coffee travels overland (like from Southern Mexico to the US or from Peru to Argentina), it travels on a truck, packed into the box that is the trailer truck. Plenty of coffee travels in truck boxes, but the real box that moves coffee is the 40 ft metal shipping container.

Shipping is the bottleneck of the coffee chain; the narrowest point through which the commodity must pass to make it from point of origin to point of consumption. Coffee is grown in a wide belt of places wrapping around the world, and consumed there and everywhere else. To get in between, green coffee gets packed into bags which are packed into boxes which are packed onto ships and sent across the open seas.

The same is true for almost all electronics, many cars, lots of fruit, and most of the clothes we wear. If a product has a “made in” tag that says anything other than USA, Mexico or Canada, it came to our shores on a container ship. A few things are air freighted because they demand speedy delivery in order to not jeopardize freshness (think Colombian roses and Panamanian orchids), but anything with a shelf life gets stuffed into a container and stacked on a ship and sent from one port to the next.

It doesn’t seem that impressive, until you consider that every single cup of coffee consumed in Europe had to get there on a container ship. One coffee origin could suffer climactic or social crisis and produce next to nothing for a year, and we’d still have coffee. Several major roasting conglomerates could go bust and we’d still have coffee, but if Hapag Lloyd, Maersk, MOL, or Hamburg Sud disappeared overnight, we’d have to ration the little bit of beans in domestic warehouses, because coffee would have no way to get to our cup.


Part of the reason shipping is the bottleneck of the process is because the number of ports and shipping lines is not as easily amplified as the number of roasters or hectares planted with coffee. It’s also interesting that a bottleneck represents a sort of monopoly, a place with the fewest hands controlling the entire volume. Which is why it’s further interesting that Hapag Lloyd and Hamburg Sud are German, Maersk is Dutch, and MOL is Japanese. Looking at the imperial history of the coffee trade, it’s interesting that producing countries don’t ship their own anything. Shipping lines are still run by people going to get things they want, rather than people selling things they have. But for all the potential to be inflated, as industries with few hands are wont to be, shipping is actually pretty affordable. Depending how far your farm or mill is from the port, it can easily cost more to get the coffee from the producing mountain to the port than from the Panama Canal to Oakland.

The low cost of shipping comes from in its inherent efficiency. As Maria Ruiz of Panama’s Café Ruiz said, “whoever decided to start putting things in boxes forever changed the way we do everything.” When you put things in boxes, it’s easier to stack and store them, and your machinery for stacking and storing can be uniform across the world when everything gets sent in exactly the same size box.

Metaphorically, we put things in mental boxes for the same reasons; it’s easier (and safer) to put people and ideas in boxes inside of our own heads in order to fit a lot of information next to each other- and safer because things stacked in boxes are stable and don’t topple when shaken. Mentally categorizing things into this 40 ft container or that one lets us process the world as efficiently as a container ship loading cargo. But because we are not in fact container ships and the mental cargo we’re stuffing is often incredibly resistant to boxes, we often have to work harder than a crane stacking mindlessly and find ways of storing things outside of boxes. Putting things in mental boxes is not as reliable as putting coffee in a box.

Coffee particularly lends itself to being shipped in boxes because it’s the ideal commodity for packing. The technical term for filling a container for shipping is “stuffing,” and coffee in fact can be stuffed. When a container of coffee is stuffed there is no wasted space; the container contains coffee front to back, floor to ceiling. 60 kg bags fit one on top of each other, row of piles next to row of piles, for a total of 300 bags per container, summing to 37, 500 lbs of pure coffee cargo, generating the unit in which green Arabica coffee is traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange C market. Because it’s the bottleneck, the shape of the shipping industry dictates the unit of the commodity market.

The shape of the shipping industry is in turn dictated by its own internal bottlenecks. The shipping industry is the narrowest point on the coffee chain, and the narrowest point of the shipping chain is the Panama Canal. The dimensions of the Canal dictate the shape of any ships that need to pass through, and shipping lines have entire fleets of Panamax ships that are the exact maximum width that can pass through the locks of the Canal, with just inches to spare on each side.

Currently, the Panama Canal is undergoing expansion, originally slated for completion just in time for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the completion of the original Canal in 1914. The completion date has been pushed back to April 2015, due to lots of logistical hangups, like relocating baby jaguars found on construction sites, and extracting 5 meter long crocodiles that have eaten all the fish- and then started eating each other- in the lake that formed in abandoned construction sites from previous expansion attempts. Turns out that just building wider locks is no small task, even with 100 years more technology to work with. An engineer and construction foreman working on the expansion said, “we’re just widening the entrances to the lake. At least the hard part is done for us.” Even though the hard part was done 100 years ago with much less technology and immigrant labor forces that spoke dozens of languages, the location itself presents the same inherent and ever-present challenges of stifling heat and humidity, often dangerous (and now endangered and thus protected with lots of red tape) wildlife, plants the size of buildings, and the sheer force of the planet’s two biggest oceans tugging at each other.

Panama is full steam ahead in the face of these difficulties, determined to continue to demonstrate that the nation is not only capable but innovative and pioneering in its management of the Canal in the 14 years it has administrated operations completely independent of the former US control.

Widening the bottleneck of bottlenecks means that the effects ripple out, creating other opportunities for expansion. Atlanta is dredging its port in order to dig deeper; wider locks mean bigger boats; bigger boats mean deeper harbors. Maersk is building the world’s biggest ship: the Triple E. You can watch the construction- and hear stories from the people involved in the process, in a very “when container ships speak” way- in a Discovery Channel’s min-series.

The dimensions of the shipping industry might change, but the concept won’t, because it works. Putting things in boxes replaced the lines of men tossing sacks of coffee to one another to load and unload cargo from the hulls of massive sailing ships. It might have eliminated jobs and some of the romance of ports-of-call, but it did work better for ensuring that entire loads of cargo didn’t fall into the ocean, and provides a little more assurance that the contents of a container are sealed from departure to arrival.

But putting things in boxes isn’t perfect. Container theft is still a problem. When things are neatly stuffed into a box, it’s easier to steal the whole box. Putting things in boxes might be easier than other transport methods, but it’s still not magic. When coffee gets shipped in a box, the empty box has to make it to the coffee. When a roaster in the US wants a load of coffee from origin, say, Boquete, Panama, the roaster sends the coffee mill shipping instructions, stating the shipping line and boat departure date. It’s then the mill’s job (and usually cost) to go and get a container from that shipping line (or send a trucking company to go get one) and bring it up to the mill in Boquete, stuff the container with coffee once it arrives to the mill, then drive it back to the port, where they wait until the goods (coffee in a box) have been loaded (by crane) over the ship’s rail, so that the shipper can give them the bill of lading- proving coffee-in-a-box on board- that the coffee makers can then send to the buyer in order to get paid.  That one piece of paper speaks for a box of 300 bags, rather than trying to ensure that 300 individual bags each made it over the ship’s rail.

Coffee cargo sits snugly together and doesn’t waste the container space a car does, but it also has a high moisture content (and the ability to absorb more), potentially changing the quality of the final product delivered. As the International Marine Office official guide on container stuffing says, “bagged cargoes with high moisture content, such as coffee and cocoa beans, may require dressing of the container ceiling and walls with moisture and condensation absorbing paper, and the hanging of so called Moisture Absorbing Materials (MAMS) bags in the container’s corners.”

Coffee travels pretty well, all things considered, and if it’s passing from the Pacific to the Atlantic- or vice versa- it might even be offloaded at one end of the Panama Canal, put on a train, and then reloaded onto a waiting ship at the other side of the Canal, to avoid time and cost of getting a ship all the way through the Canal. In addition to being able to turn a shipping container into an 18 wheel truck, putting things in boxes also makes them instantly convertible into train cars.

Putting things in boxes makes them stackable, shippable, trainable, truckable, and still a little mysterious, because you never quite what you’ll get when you open a container. Hopefully it’s coffee- the coffee you want it to be.

Lots of boxes.
Lots of boxes.

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