Shipping containers, and the ships that carry them, are some of the most overlooked yet essential parts of the modern economy. They are the lifeblood of physical industry and trade. Without them, we would be highly restricted in what we could transport, how much we could move around, and where we could take things.
Consider for a moment just how much of what you have was made or at least partially made overseas. Practically all those items came to the country via shipping container on a container ship. Sure, there are other aspects of transport and shipping, but nothing can even come close in terms of bulk.
While there is so much to learn about them, let’s start with a few facts and figures. Here are 25 things you should know about containers and container ships – who knew they were so interesting!
Most of the containers shown in pictures or movies are the standard 20′ shipping containers. They are by far the most common type of container, but they aren’t the only kind, and there are variations to consider.
Some others include but are not limited to:
- Containers that are either 10′ or 40′ long, allowing for easier movement or larger loads.
- Containers that have open tops or sides, allowing for transport of extra tall or long items. Alternatively, these containers are suitable for transporting and loading large pieces of equipment.
- Tanks for liquids. While they certainly look different from the other containers, they are transported in much the same way through the same channels.
- ISO and insulated containers. These transport goods that are perishable or need a proper temperature at all times.
- Swap body containers, which have a convertible top. They are generally only used for road and rail transport.
You might have imagined this already, but container vessels are massive. They need to carry and transport thousands of shipping containers and remain seaworthy even under the harshest conditions. As a result, they are marvels of modern engineering.
Here are some of the largest vessels and their sizes (measured in TEU capacity):
- HMM Algeciras: 23,964 TRU
- MSC Gülsün: 23,756 TEU
- MSC Mina: 23,656 TEU
- CMA CGM Jacques Saadé: 23,112 TEU
- HMM Oslo: 23,000 TEU
To put these numbers into perspective, the HMM Algeciras is about 400 meters long and 33.2 meters deep. That’s about four football fields long and a large building tall, all devoted to shipping. Yet, new ships are often made marginally bigger, pushing the line forward ever so slightly. In a sense, the sheer scale is something you just have to see for yourself.
People do not just use shipping containers on the ocean for transporting cargo. Due to their design, general hardiness, and customizability, shipping containers are useful for everything from equipment storage on construction sites to modern offices.
There really isn’t any limit if the structure works. Shipping containers can also easily be reinforced and customized to whatever the need is. Furthermore, if one shipping container will not work on its own, multiple containers or different types of containers (perhaps those with different doors or openings) can be used together instead.
When we say shipping containers move nearly everything, we mean it. While container shipping can be expensive, you would see a much higher bill if you were to ship large quantities of goods any other way. There really isn’t much of a cheaper alternative.
Furthermore, it is primarily a dozen or so top companies responsible for most cargo shipping traffic. It takes a considerable investment to get into container shipping and a lot of expertise on top of that, meaning that these companies are responsible for the shipping of goods across the world, and the economy needs every one of them
Over time a fair number of the ducks made their way to shore and were discovered. However, there are many more still missing. So, if you see a rubber duck on the beach, you might now have an idea about where it came from!
While the exact number can vary from year to year, more than 95 percent of shipping containers are made in China, with the country having an effective monopoly on them. Further still, only a few companies make most containers in the country.
In general, production is based in China because labor costs are much cheaper, and the facilities are already there. China is one of the biggest users of shipping containers anyway. This may change in the future as labor costs in China rise, and there is always the possibility of a change in the political situation. Still, for the moment, nearly every shipping container you see will have been made in China.
After a container has been used to transport certain materials, you cannot use it for others, meaning that not every container is interchangeable, and keeping track of previous shipments is vital.
In general, containers used for food products or similar organic matter can only be used for that type of item in the future. The last thing any of us want is chemical contamination. Imagine if, for example, a tank first used to carry paint thinner was then used to transport milk. Even trace amounts are not something we want in our food supply.
Similar restrictions exist for various chemicals and products, all to prevent dangerous incidents and keep us safe.
The first container was made in response to the need for sturdier crates or containers for goods, as the current ones were buckling or breaking under the weight. It was created by Malcolm McLean, who was involved in truck shipping before touching anything involving the ocean. It took a little bit of experimentation, but eventually, McLean’s efforts paid off, creating a far more seamless and efficient way to transport goods than what we had at the time.
There have been slight changes and variations over the years, but the standard shipping container hasn’t changed much in basic design since the 1950s.
Things can get rough at sea, and even things as sturdy and well-set as shipping containers are liable to get lost or fall overboard. Of course, crew members try their best, and container shipping is overall a safe and secure enterprise, but problems and mistakes will happen. With the sheer volume of containers being moved at any one time, something is bound to happen. Most reports say the number of lost containers is in the thousands, but others say that the number is lower. In truth, getting an exact count is difficult (not every lost container is immediately noticed), but it happens even with the best precautions and plans in place.
Shipping containers are built to take a beating, but they’re also built to last. So, while the occasional container will suffer a breach or a problem that puts it out of commission, most containers get used many times before they are through their typical lifecycle. This usually means a couple of decades of use and a lot of loading and unloading.
Even after a few decades of use at sea, a used shipping container can find new life as another structure, so long as it is intact. A solid inspection is vital, but as we’ve talked about, shipping containers have many alternative uses, from buildings to storage.
With so many shipments on the seas at any time, there have to be millions of active containers in use. The need is clearly there, and there is still something of a shortage in some places. It is a constant balancing act with shipping companies and manufacturers planning ahead how many need to be made and how many will be retired during a specific period. Thankfully they have data to help them, but it can’t be an easy job.
As containers are retired and global trade continues to grow, there will be a need for more production, increasing the number of active containers as time goes on. There might be a materials shortage currently, but shipping will outlive any short-term shortage, and once steel and lumber become easy to acquire again, production will need to work hard to keep up and expand.
Every shipping container has a tracking number or code used to track the container and its shipment. That way, people can know at least roughly where it is and keep track of their goods. This tracking number is standard, and the system has been in use for a long time.
Of course, electronic and GPS tracking is becoming more common, and there is a trend towards people wanting to know more about their shipments. Still, we will not see a complete conversion to electronic tracking for some time. We will likely continue to have manual monitoring as a backup, perhaps with computer assistance as is done currently.
Given that they are metal and not particularly hydrodynamic, you might think a shipping container that goes overboard will sink like a rock. This is not the case. Shipping containers are filled with air and are relatively tightly sealed. It will take time (though not too long) for water to get into them and for them to sink. A few will sink quickly based on their cargo, but it is by no means guaranteed.
In fact, floating shipping containers are an ocean hazard and can cause significant damage if a boat runs into them. This is actually the plot of the movie, All Is Lost, in which a floating container sinks the main character’s ship.
Even with the best minds in logistics and the various computerized systems tracking every container, many containers ship empty. They are simply shipped to get them where they are needed for a future date.
The COVID-19 pandemic also impacted this, with exports and imports not being equal in all cases and a limited number of containers. How much this occurs depends on the port, demand for goods, and various other factors.
As we’ll discuss later, container ships are not the worst option for the environment, but that does not mean that they do not leave an impact. The fuels they burn release harmful products into the water and air, and diesel fuel is not known for being clean.
Fortunately, measures are being taken to help ensure that container ships will be cleaner and more eco-friendly in the future. Solar panels and wind turbines are being installed to produce power for the ship. Cleaner fuels are being developed, as are ships that can use them. Companies are always looking for ways to use less fuel in general, for their own benefit as well as the environment.
What port do you think handles the most traffic when it comes to shipping container processing? It is the port of Shanghai, which in 2020 could handle 43.5 million TEU. That is a massive amount of containers by any standard, and the general rankings aren’t expected to change anytime soon, considering global trade trends.
In the United States, Los Angeles and Long Beach handle the most containers, but they still don’t compete with the largest ports in Asia. Nine out of ten of the top ports in the world are in Asia. Even if production shifts out of China, it looks like other Asian countries are ready to take on that role, only slightly shifting the ports used.
Using the ocean means it’s easier to move cargo than doing so on land, but there is a lot of weight to the ship alone, not counting the freight. Strapping a few sails to the deck and hoping for the best is not going to cut it.
Instead, container ships use massive engines. Just reading about one of them is astounding, with the engine itself being nearly 90 feet long and capable of 108,920HP. That is far more than your family car, for starters.
You might think that when a ship or container goes through customs that everything is inspected, but this simply isn’t possible. Instead, less than 10 percent of all containers are examined, with the exact percentage varying based on the port and timing. In Europe, even fewer containers are inspected, making us wonder how anything illegal is ever found!
However, certain factors might make a container more likely to be inspected, such as a weight differential, something suspicious, or an importer that has not built a relationship with customs yet.
While container ships are almost towns in and of themselves, that does not mean they are always connected. Only about 10 percent of container ships have constant internet access, and even this is not guaranteed. Some ships will spend a significant amount of time out of contact with the outside world, which can be an unsettling thought out there. With that in mind, many crew members might want to bring some offline activities for their downtime, lest they get too bored.
Most of the fuels that ships use are not the best for the environment. Additionally, container shipping is responsible for a lot of pollution in the air and ocean through fossil fuels. There is no avoiding this, and container ships are working on using more eco-friendly means of transport, though that is by no means easy.
However, when compared to the ecological cost of shipping the goods any other way, container shipping is the best choice. Trucks and even trains are not as efficient.
To further help matters, as discussed earlier, new and old container ships alike are trying to change their design to make the most out of the fuel. On the other side of the coin, we can likely expect developments with fuel production as well. Things will have to change, but progress is happening.
Given all the things shipped from overseas, what do you think are the most commonly shipped items in containers? Is it anything special?
In truth, not really. Production materials, furniture, food, toys, car parts, and electronics all get a lot of shipping traffic and are all transported by containers.
On top of that, there are the base materials for those items, such as wood, steel, etc. The input has to match the output.
Do you think that a container ship can carry the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty? The answer is yes, absolutely (assuming they could secure the landmark properly, of course). These ships are so large and can carry such a load that even massive structures can comfortably sit on a container ship, with room for tourist trinkets to spare. It might not be the wisest or most economical course of action. Still, considering the size of some ships and how much weight they can transport, it is certainly possible, especially with focus and enough time.
Depending on where you live, you might have seen shipping containers used as buildings or other structures. Some people make pools out of them, while others will make greenhouses with some clever modifications. There are few limitations to what you can create with shipping containers with the proper reinforcement and alterations.
Using them will naturally make the landscape look slightly different, but some places might welcome the new look, and some people might want to specifically live in or frequent such a place.
There is a city in Mexico that uses shipping containers for practically everything. In Cholula, the area uses several dozen containers to create a space that is home to shops, restaurants, and more, with the empty spaces also being used to create courtyards and streets. It is a unique place to go and visit, and it feels so much more alive than one might think.
It is a little bit of a novelty, but the container city shows what is possible. The repurposing of containers doesn’t have to consign itself to the simple and potentially dull. We wonder if there will be other constructions on a larger scale in the future, perhaps closer to worldwide hubs. Additionally, we wonder if large living complexes using shipping containers will be made in the future or might become popular.
One might worry that a container ship might not go the distance with all it has to carry. In truth, many container ships can easily travel halfway around the world without refueling if they want to. However, some factors such as the ship’s speed and what it’s carrying matter a great deal as well.
While container ships can go a huge distance on a full tank, not many fill up their tank to the brim every chance they get. Fuel is heavy, especially given the amount that container ships have to carry. Many container ships will only carry a small amount more than they need to reach their next destination to be more fuel-efficient and faster.
Container ships and containers have so much to them and are such a significant part of our lives without realizing this. There is a lot more to learn about them, from logistics to manufacturing, that you could read several books on the topic and only scratch the corrosion-resistant surface. The ships, in turn, are some of the largest and most interesting structures we have. Whatever your interest, we hope the above info was fun to think about, and you have a better idea of the scale and importance of shipping around the world.