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11 September 2019
Containerised shipping accounted, in 2017, for 1.82 billion tonnes of global trade. Currently, there are around 22 million containers plying the oceans, but for ports with a significant trade imbalance – those that import more than they export – they are causing huge problems. Empty containers stack up.
Manila in particular is struggling with this problem, with around 8,000 empty intermodal containers clogging up the port. Nigeria, Kenya and the United Kingdom are also struggling with a surplus of boxes.
But moving empty containers to in-demand areas is an expensive business, and takes up space on ships that could otherwise be used for export. According to industry estimates, shifting empty containers accounts for 25% of all box movements in China, and 29% in Europe.
What’s the solution?
A neat solution to have emerged in recent years is the collapsible container. A foldable container has the ability to condense into a quarter of the space taken up by a traditional intermodal container, making it possible to stack far more empty containers into a space.
Container optimisation platforms such as Matchbox Exchange are seeking to remedy the problem by providing an ‘open-market’, app-based platform to facilitate the exchange of shipping containers between logistics companies. The aim is to reduce the industry’s dependence on wasteful, empty container parks.
This crisis is also one of the reasons we’re increasingly seeing containers repurposed for other uses. Intermodal containers are easily customisable, modular, movable, and far quicker to turn into a structure than traditional buildings. They’re also – just as importantly in the West – seen as quite cool.
We now see coffee shops, restaurants, temporary storage facilities, office buildings, small pop-up art galleries and even swimmingpools built out of stacked shipping containers. They also serve a purpose indeveloping countries, where shipping containers can be relatively cheaply converted into rural schools, libraries and clinics – or even as modular housing.
Making better use of shipping containers
Arguably, the best use of a shipping container is as a shipping container clinic. These can be deployed anywhere in the world with the medical clinic assembled inside, making them ideal for use in remote areas and disaster zones where existing infrastructure has been destroyed or is inadequate.
They found particular use in Haiti. When a devastating earthquake hit the country in 2010, 80% of the buildings at Grace Children’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince collapsed. Because the sturdy steel structure of an intermodal container is more resilient to earthquakes than a concrete building, shipping container clinics were deployed across the capital as mobile medical resources, helping Grace Children’s Hospital treat 4,500 patients in the months after the earthquake.
Shipping containers have also been used to transportgenerators, water treatment equipment and as secure emergency storage facilities for medicine and documents. However, containers do not tend to make effective temporary shelter in disaster zones – it costs upwards of $30,000 to convert one into emergency accommodation.
More container innovation at Intermodal Europe Containerisation transformed global trade when it was first adopted, and the world’s enormous surplus of intermodal containers will continue to be transformative in other ways. These will be addressed at Intermodal Europe this year; at the Smart Shipping & Logistics Forum, market leaders will discuss the implications of container optimisation on day one, while day two will see a lengthy discussion on how shipping containers are being given an afterlife in housing and urban design.