Foldable containers

Due to the imbalances in trade flows, 24% of containers that are being shipped around the world are empty.[1,2] Shipping patterns see containers loaded, for example, with cargo in Asia, and unloaded in the West. Empty containers are then carried back to Asia for reloading.

Empty containers have the same footprint and require the same underlying transport infrastructure as full containers.[1] Having to reposition these empty containers accounts for between 5 and 8% of operational costs for a typical carrier, and the industry spends an estimated $6-12bn every year to move empty containers around.[3,4]

Designing containers to be foldable would make it possible to lay them flat, lowering repositioning costs, and allowing ships to transport more empty containers at once.[5] This will reduce the necessary movements by cranes at berth, and therefore the time at port required to handle them.

Robotic and automated container folding operations in-transit onboard and at ports, as well as the development of lightweight materials for containers, will contribute to the acceptance of this practice.

When will it become accepted practice that empty containers are folded?

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[1] Blume Global (2020), A Guide to Intermodal Shipping Containers and Containerization
[2] Flynn M. (2020), Solving the problem of empty shipping containers
[3] Sanders, U., Riedle, J., Kloppsteck, L., Roeloffs, C. & Schlingmeier, J. (2015), Think out side your Boxes: Solving the Global container-Repositing puzzle
[4] Kristiansen (2012), Empty containers cost Maersk Line USD 1 billion a year; Estimation calculated by PERISCOPE based on reference
[5] Plastics Today (2014), Composites could revolutionize shipping containers
More information:
Champion Freight (2019), Megaships


By Matthew J. Spaniol