Shipping containers changed the world

shipping containers

It was 11:30 am on a sunny Tuesday in mid-April, and the Hong Kong Express had been docked at Hamburg’s Container Terminal Altenwerder for exactly 33 hours. Already, the ship was half empty. Cargo from Asia was stacked in neat rows of shipping containers on the dock.

Standing in its shadow, it’s hard to appreciate just how big the Hong Kong Express is. From stem to stern, it’s 1,200 feet, nearly a quarter of a mile; from side to side it’s 157 feet, about as wide as some mega yachts are long. Fully loaded, it can carry 13,167 20-foot-long containers, the standard box used in commerce around the world. Laid end to end, that many boxes—each one containing anything from T-shirts to TVs to truck parts—would stretch for 50 miles.

As the spring sun climbed higher, glinting off the placid Elbe River, some cranes nestled containers into towering metal racks on the ship’s deck while others lifted boxes out. At full tilt, Altenwerder’s custom-built cranes can simultaneously load and unload more than 150 containers per hour. Already, full racks of Asia-bound cargo towered 50 feet above the deck, corrugated steel containers stacked like Lego blocks six deep. Still more hid unseen within the behemoth’s matte crimson hull.

Before Wednesday dawned, the Hong Kong Express would be underway once more, sailing 70 miles down the Elbe to its mouth on the North Sea. Once it edged away from the Hamburg dock, its progress amounts to a snapshot of global commerce: first a brief westward sail to the English port of Southampton, then nearly a month chugging at 25 miles per hour to Singapore…

In less than two months the Hong Kong Express called at 11 ports and traveled more than 12,500 miles. Circling the world four or five times a year, it can move 1.4 million tons of cargo annually. That’s the equivalent of 1.8 billion iPads. The ship is a link in a long, complicated, and precise global supply chain made possible by the humble boxes on board.

More than any other single innovation, the shipping container — there are millions out there, all just like the ones stacked on the Hong Kong Express but for a coat of paint and a serial number — epitomizes the enormity, sophistication, and importance of our modern transportation system. Invisible to most people, they’re fundamental to how practically everything in our consumer-driven lives works.

Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant…

The container’s efficiency has proven to be an irresistible economic force. Last year the world’s container ports moved 560 million 20-foot containers — nearly 1.5 billion tons of cargo altogether. Though commodities like petroleum, steel ore, and coal still move in specially designed bulk cargo ships, more than 90 percent of the rest — everything from clothes to cars to computers — now travels inside shipping containers. “Reefer” containers, insulated and equipped with cooling units, carry refrigerated cargo and are plugged into power sources on ships or at dockside. Because the containers are all identical, any ship can move them.

That’s just the beginning of the article. Romance to me. My life and time in two separate blocks – one of those about 15 years in length within the stream of commerce called traffic management. The longer chunk was more fun. Selling stuff that came in these containers to retailers. Moving it along to consumers.

RTFA. Stuff worth knowing.

23 thoughts on “Shipping containers changed the world

  1. Harbinger says:

    Asia-Europe Container Freight Rates Drops 28 Percent (November 20, 2015) The drop came after spot freight rates on the world’s busiest route dropped 39.3 percent last week, and the current rates are widely seen as loss-making levels for container shipping companies. …Maersk Line, the global market leader with more than 600 container vessels and part of Danish oil and shipping group A.P. Moller-Maersk, earlier in November reported a 61 percent drop in net profit in the third quarter.
    The Danish shipping company controls around one fifth of all transported containers from Asia to Europe.

  2. Grey Seas Under says:

    On June 17, 2013, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines’ 2008-built MOL Comfort began suffering from severe hogging { } and broke in two while underway from Singapore to Jeddah with a load of 7,041 TEUs. { } The crew escaped in life rafts and were picked up by another merchant vessel. The stern section was never recovered and sank some 10 days later. The bow section was towed most of the way towards the Arabian Gulf, but eventually burst into flames and sank. Photos of the incident @

  3. Curtis Ebbesmeyer says:

    “Thousands of coffee cans wash up on Brevard beach” “It’s believed that the cans fell off the 340-foot Columbia Elizabeth on Sunday after it left Port Canaveral to head to Puerto Rico. As many as 25 containers fell into the ocean and the search has been on since then to recover the cargo, according to the Sun-Sentinel.” “Lost containers are a frequent casualty of ships crisscrossing the world’s oceans. Between 5 million and 6 million containers are in transit every day, and as many as 10,000 a year are estimated to end up in the water, according to a 2014 report prepared by scientists at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
    “The accumulation of these slow-to-decay structures year after year is a cause for concern,” according to the report.”

  4. AB says:

    United Arab Shipping Company says its M.V. Al Muraykh, one of the world’s greenest containerships, has loaded a world record 18,601 TEUs (each 20-foot-long ISO container equals 1 Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit). UASC says the Ultra-Large Containership (ULCV) departed Port Klang in Malaysia this week bound for Felixstowe in the UK as part of AEC1 (Asia-Europe Container) service carrying the 18,601 TEUs. The vessel will be sailing for two weeks. “This unprecedented westbound shipment is also UASC’s highest utilization to date of this very eco-efficient class, meaning the CO2 output per TEU on this journey is set to be more than 60% lower if the same containers were shipped on board a 13,500 TEU ship,” UASC said in a press release announcing the record load. See photo and video of the fully loaded ship departing Port Klang (Oct 9th, 2015)

    • Bob says:

      (12/26/15) “Photos: First Ultra-Large Containership Arrives in the United States.” “The largest containership ever to visit North America arrived at the port of Los Angeles early Saturday morning, marking the U.S. debut of a new breed of ‘mega ships’ that have until now only been seen in Asia and Europe. The 398-meter, 18,000 TEU capacity MV CMA CGM Benjamin Franklin arrived just after 4 a.m. at APM Terminals’ Pier 400 at the port of Los Angeles after sailing from China. The ship is one of a new type of Ultra Large Container Vessels (ULCVs – see link) being built at shipyards in Asia by some of the largest carriers to increase capacity and efficiency on the world’s busiest shipping routes. The vessels measure up to 400 meters long (1,312 ft.) and are designed to carry more than 18,000, and in some cases even 19,000 twenty-foot equivalent containers, but until now they have been deployed exclusively on Asia to N. Europe trade routes.”

  5. Usagi Tsukino says:

    “The largest bankruptcy ever to take place in container shipping now appears inevitable after the board of Hanjin Shipping voted unanimously to file for court receivership in South Korea today. And liner analysts warned box shippers and their forwarders to expect severe disruption throughout the container supply chain as the complicated web of alliances, vessel sharing agreements and slot swaps unravels. …Already there have been reports of some vessel arrests, with the 5,300 teu [ ] Hanjin Rome in Singapore and the 13,100 teu Hanjin Sooho in Shanghai reported to have been detained. According to, Hanjin’s 39 box ships have an aggregate value of $1.39bn, while the total value of its fleet, including tankers and bulkers, comes to $1.73bn.

    • Cassandra says:

      (Oct 7) “Nippon Yusen (NYK), Japan’s biggest shipper by sales, warned it would book a $1.9 billion hit to first-half income, after the industry’s deepening slump forced it to write down the value of container ships and other assets. The shock writedown is the latest symptom of the dramatic slowdown in the container shipping sector. Weaker global trade, and in particular softer demand from China, has battered freight rates and left hundreds of ships idle. Chronic oversupply in the industry has already claimed one high profile victim this year: South Korea’s Hanjin Shipping Co Ltd, the world’s seventh largest container carrier before it went into receivership. “Analysts predicted more pain in the industry would be forthcoming. “I suspect the carriers are in a weaker position than they are admitting. The big question now is: can independent carriers survive or will there be a push towards partnerships, if not actual mergers?” said Richard Clayton, chief maritime analyst at IHS Maritime and Trade. The shipping industry has been hobbled by losses and debt, with NYK among the most indebted with a $7.2 billion net debt burden at the end of June.” See also “No Reprieve for Multipurpose Shipping Until 2018: Drewry”

  6. Clapotis says:

    “Claims against Hanjin flood in as customers seek their cargo” “…meanwhile there will be plenty of legal business to go around as shippers desperately try to free their Christmas cargo. Hanjin Shipping has a fleet of 100 ships and the Korea Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries estimates that as many as 540,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units [‘cargo containers’] are floating around on its vessels. …Hanjin vessels are stuck outside ports from which they have been denied entry, or are tied up alongside with terminals refusing to work their cargo.” See map for current positions of Hanjin vessels.

  7. Poopdeck says:

    An interesting New York Times video on the story of Malcolm McLean, the former truck driver who invented the shipping container and revolutionized an industry and changed the global economy forever @ See also “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.” by Marc Levinson

  8. Conex says:

    “Cargo volumes at the Port of Los Angeles reached 8,856,782 TEU in 2016, marking the busiest year ever for the port or any port in the Western Hemisphere Port for that matter, the Port of Los Angeles said Thursday.” A standard ISO Sea Container, twenty feet long by 8 feet wide, equals one TEU. The circumference of the earth is roughly 131.48 million feet.

  9. Wharfie says:

    “Madrid Maersk, the Latest World’s Biggest Containership, Enters Service in China” The Madrid Maersk is a 20,568 TEU containership and the first of Lines’ 2nd generation Triple-E’s ( ), which are built to nearly the same dimensions as the first gen at 399 meters long, however the new Triple-E’s are made to be 7% more efficient, with the ability to carry 2,000 more containers than their predecessors. (Re: TEU see )

    • Ahoy says:

      CMA CGM is rumored to be on verge of placing a massive order for the construction of up to nine 22,000 TEU containerships, which if built would be the largest in the world.
      According to several reports, South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries is competing with a shipyard in China for the contract to build the ships. Reports say the order, which could finalized in the new few weeks, will consist of six 22,000 TEU newbuildings with options for three additional vessels. Currently, the largest containership by TEU capacity is the 21,413 TEU OOCL Hong Kong. Upon its delivery in May, the vessel was the first to surpass the 21,000 TEU mark and only the third vessel to break 20,000 TEU. In 2015, the CMA CGM took delivery of 6 new vessels of 18,000 TEU, the largest vessels in its fleet.
      CMA CGM S.A. is a French container transportation and shipping company It is a leading worldwide shipping group, using 200 shipping routes between 420 ports in 150 different countries. Its headquarters are in Marseille, and its North American headquarters are in Norfolk, Virginia, United States. The name is an acronym, which, spelled out, would translate as “Maritime Freighting Company – General Maritime Company”.

  10. Roomba says:

    World’s Safest, Fully Automated, Zero Emission Container Terminal Opens In Rotterdam Automation of port terminals threatens thousands of lucrative dock worker jobs Norwegian Fertilizer Manufacturer Yara to order the world’s first zero-emission, autonomous container ship

  11. Yar says:

    An average of 1,390 containers have been lost at sea each year over the past three years, according to a new survey of the world’s ocean carriers by the World Shipping Council. Photo: [some containers sink straight away, others can drift for months with only a small area exposed, posing a risk for small vessels ]

  12. Charlotte Dundas says:

    “TEU Tokens and Blockchain Could Shape the Future of Container Shipping”
    See also: “AIS Animation Shows CSCL Jupiter Grounding and Salvage” The 366-meter containership CSCL Jupiter ran aground on Monday in the Scheldt river near Antwerp, shutting down the second busiest port in Europe. The 13,300 TEU CSCL Jupiter was built in 2011 and is flagged in Hong Kong. The vessel is managed by China Shipping Container Lines, part of China COSCO.
    Video of 16 tugs working to re-float the vessel @ Time-elapse of the ensuing ballet @

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