An overview
The container has played a significant role in global trade, shipping, art, design, economics, commerce, and history.

While an official report by the World Shipping Council in 2011 makes special note of container shortages,  containers are used to make pre-fab houses (tempohousing) and offices, provides the shelter to the Brooklyn Dekalb market, and inspired miniatures serve as household decorations such as Daniel Baliou’s (Long Beach native) Cargo Container.  Baliou’s containers were created in homage to his city’s shipyards. For reference, Long Beach is ranked as the 18th busiest port in the world (Container Management, 2009).

Figure 1. Olivia Maresk at the Miraflores Locks, Panama Canal
Photo by Kristen Sosulski, 2011

This posting will define what a container is (including a brief history of use), what’s inside, note some advantages of using containers, introduce you to the top container ports of the world and present some data visualizations of the container port traffic.

What’s a container?

Figure 2. Maersk Containers
Photo by Kristen Sosulski, 2011

A.K.A. Box.

You’ve seen the boxes on trains, 18-wheelers on highways, and if you’re close to one of the 120 top container ports, you’ve seen the stacks of the 40 foot boxes in primary and secondary hues standing tall adjacent to the nearby waterway. Containers are standardized boxes constructed of steel or aluminum based on ISO specifications (World Shipping Council, 2011a). These specifications ensure standardization of the boxes regardless of where they are manufactured. They enable the same box to be transported via ship, train, or truck. This idea of intermodalism is attributed to Malcom P. McLean (a trucking entrepreneur) and “led to a revolution in cargo transportation and international trade” (World Shipping Council, 2011b, para 2)

The most common size container is either 20 or 40 feet in length. Containers are technically referred as twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU). The TEU is based on the smaller 20ft containers. A FEU is a 40 foot container. However, the TEU unit is used universally. Therefore, one 20-foot container equals one TEU, and one 40-foot container literally equals two TEU. The Olivia Maresk can hold 3,267 TEUs (see Figure 1).  Each container in Figure 2 equals two TEU.

The BBC did a great study of “the box” around the world and they also describe the anatomy of the box.
When did containers begin to be used for shipping?
Containers are a twentieth century invention. In 1956, the first 58 containers were shipped from Newark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas (Levinson, 2006). “The use of containers has transformed the global cargo trade and there are . . . around 4,000 container ships traveling between international ports” (BBC, para 10).

What’s inside those containers?
The modern containerized imports and exports of the U.S  carry cars, food, paper, chemicals, machinery, clothes, toys, furniture, beer, and lots other commodities (U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2010).

“During the first half of 2010, America’s container ports handled over $256 billion worth of containerized cargo imports weighing more than 62 million metric tons. They also handled exports worth over $100 billion and weighing 48 million metric tons” (Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), 2011, para 3).

Where are all those containers going, anyway?In the global container fleet, “there are more than 17 million container units equating to more than 27 million TEU”(World Shipping Council, 2011a, para 7).
The top 5 container ports in Asia, three of which are in China (World Shipping Council, 2011; Container Magazine, 2009).

1. Shanghai, China

2. Singapore, Singapore

3. Hong Kong, China

4. Shenzhen, China

5. Busan, South Korea
Container Port Volume and Container Port Traffic (TEU)

Figure 3. Shipping Port Volume of the top 5 ports in 2009 and 2010.
Source: Data from World Shipping Council, 2011.
Chart by Kristen Sosulski, 2011.

In 2010, the volume of the top five container ports was 118.53 million TEU (World Shipping Council, 2011c). See Figure 3 for a chart of shipping port volume of the top five world container ports between 2009 and 2010. 

The World Bank measures container port traffic (indicator) and defines it as a measure of “the flow of containers from land to sea transport modes, and vice versa, in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs)”.  See figure 4 to see the growth in the container port traffic in China in comparison with itself and the U.S.

Figure 4. Comparison of Container Port Traffic between U.S. and China.
Source: World Bank
Chart by Kristen Sosulski, 2011

Once you start looking for containers, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. The impact of containers on that global trade is significant with many advantages (RITA, 2011)

  • Standardization to enable intermodelism
  • Reduced cost of transporting goods safely
  • Less time to load and unload the large vessels used in transporting goods
  • Ability to use refrigerated containers to ships frozen food products.

BBC (2008). How have containers transformed trade. Retrieved from

Maersk Line (2011). Vessels. Retrieved from

Research and Innovative Technology Administration (2011). Top 20 container ports. Retrieved from

World Shipping Council (2011a). Containers. Retrieved from

World Shipping Council (2011b). History of containerization. Retrieved from

World Shipping Council (2011c). Top 50 world container ports. Retrieved from

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3 thoughts on “Containers

  • January 2, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    Thanks for the read. It was an amazing sight to watch one of the larger container ships pass through the Panama Canal. I was impressed with the number of containers that it held and the costs for the shipment.

  • January 24, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    I'm still not over the Temphousing!!!

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