Alternative uses for shipping containers

16 March 2020


Containerised shipping accounted for 1.82 billion tonnes of global trade in 2017. With so many containers traversing the waves in such high rates, the question of what to do with disused containers is an extremely pertinent one—in particular, ports in the Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya and the United Kingdom are struggling with a surplus of empty boxes.


Shifting these containers is big business: according to industry estimates, moving empty containers accounts for 25% of all box movements in China, and 29% in Europe. But what happens to the containers that aren’t simply reused, and is there any way to transport them more efficiently?


Are collapsible containers the solution?


Collapsible containers are a neat and cost-effective solution. Although the upfront costs are higher, they offer much greater economies of scale, as they allow firms to ship significantly more empty containers between
ports at any one time, which reduces overall costs. The use of collapsible containers also offers more operational flexibility and reliability, and potentially faster turnaround times at ports. Unlike typical shipping containers, which can only be moved one at a time, collapsible containers allow the movement of as many as four at once, without the need for time-consuming repositioning on the vessel.


These containers cost as much as five times as much as an ordinary intermodal container. However, as they become more commonplace, and given the long-term return on investment they provide, the unit cost of collapsible containers should decrease. In the coming years, they will be a widely-adopted solution to the empty container surplus.


Repurposing the intermodal container


The massive surplus of empty shipping containers can also be solved by repurposing old containers. Intermodal containers are easily customisable, modular, movable, and far quicker to turn into a structure than traditional buildings.


We now see coffee shops, restaurants, temporary storage facilities, office buildings, small pop-up art galleries and even swimming pools built out of stacked shipping containers. They also serve a purpose in developing countries, where shipping containers can be relatively cheaply converted into rural schools, libraries and clinics – or even as modular housing.


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 transport generators, 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.


Learn more at Intermodal Asia 2020


Intermodal Asia 2020, taking place on 14–16 July 2020 at SWEECC, Shanghai offers expert industry knowledge from a range of intermodal and container shipping thought leaders.


In particular, look out from the ‘Alternative Uses for the Shipping Container’ forum, in which an experienced panel discusses all aspects of the repurposed shipping container, from design and modification to cost and feasibility. Plus, see some of the world’s most advanced shipping containers on the show floor, and speak to suppliers and innovators from across the world.


Get your free ticket today and access intermodal excellence and unrivalled networking opportunities at Intermodal Asia 2020.