90 percent of the world’s trade goods are moved in containers. One hundred million container loads crisscross the world’s oceans each year in over 5,000 container ships. There is a very big chance that a lot of the stuff you own or buy came to you in a shipping container. But these shipping containers create problems too. After they are used a few times, they become used shipping containers and nobody wants them. These containers currently have no real use since it is not cost effective to return empty containers to their point of origin. One estimate is $900 per container for the average return trip.
Since it’s cheaper to manufacture new shipping containers on the opposite side of the ocean than to transport the empty ones back, the shipping container industry continues to produce more of them each and every year. You might say that shipping containers are a renewable resource of sorts.
But unlike bamboo, or other sustainable resources, shipping containers do not “grow” benignly. They are not (yet) harmless in their effect on the environment. In fact, they are stacked, dozens of containers high, in port cities and areas around inland freight transit terminals. In some residential neighborhoods, these mountainous stacks of hundreds of thousands of empty shipping containers actually cast a shadow causing the sun to “set” an hour earlier than in the surrounding area! So, they are already impacting the lifestyle of some coastal residents.
Besides being an aesthetic nightmare, these shipping containers pose a serious waste disposal problem. Unless something is done, the environmental impact will only worsen. Twenty-one thousand containers hit American shores every day of the year, and tens of thousands reach the waterfronts of other countries, with many more at sea on any given day. This method of transporting goods is unlikely to change. As long as we are trading with Asia, there is going to be a glut of shipping containers. We can’t change this situation. What can change is how we look at it.
Rather than looking at these shipping containers as a waste disposal problem, we can choose to regard them as an abundance of potential building material. Shipping containers are readily available across the globe. So there is a bright spot in this darkening sky. Some architects and builders are beginning to take advantage of this surplus to recycle the containers. This then, is the first degree of reparation: to clean up the coastlines by recycling these used shipping containers. Recycling in this way will result in cleaner and healthier coastlines without creating another problem like huge areas of landfill.