Saturday, August 18, 2012

"The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy"

From Slate:
Earlier this spring, the Washington Conservation Corps faced a sudden influx of beach debris on the state’s southwestern shore. Time and tide were beginning to deposit the aftereffects of Japan’s March 11, 2011, tsunami. One of the myriad objects retrieved was a plastic pallet, scuffed and swimming-pool green, bearing the words: “19-4 (salt) (return required), and, below that, “Japan salt service.”

A year earlier, Dubai’s police made the region’s largest narcotics bust when they intercepted a container, carried on a Liberian registered-ship, that had originated from Pakistan and transited through what Ethan Zuckerman has called the “ley lines of globalization,” that constellation of dusty, never-touristed entrepôts like Oman’s Salalah Port or Nigeria’s Tin Can Island Port. Acting on an informant’s tip, police searched the container’s cargo—heavy bags of iron filings—to no avail. Only after removing every bag did police decide to check the pallets on which the bags had rested. Inside each was a hollowed-out section holding 500 to 700 grams of heroin.

Two random stories plucked from the annals of shipping. What unites these disparate tales of things lost (and hidden) on the seas is that they each draw attention to something that usually goes unnoticed: The pallet, that humble construction of wood joists and planks (or, less typically, plastic or metal ones) upon which most every object in the world, at some time or another, is carried. “Pallets move the world,” says Mark White, an emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and director of the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet & Container Research Laboratory and the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design. And, as the above stories illustrate, the world moves pallets, often in mysterious ways.

Pallets, of course, are merely one cog in the global machine for moving things. But while shipping containers, for instance, have had their due, in Marc Levinson’s surprisingly illustrative book The Box (“the container made shipping cheap, and by doing so changed the shape of the world economy”), pallets rest outside of our imagination, regarded as scrap wood sitting outside grocery stores or holding massive jars of olives at Costco. As one German article, translated via Google, put it: “How exciting can such a pile of boards be?”...MORE
HT: The Browser