Lightweight containers

It is estimated that there are 25 million shipping containers in active service around the world, with around 6 million in transit, at any time.[1] For over 60 years, they have been made from steel, and an empty 20-foot container already weighs about 2 metric tonnes.[2,3]

Constructing containers from composite materials could reduce their weight by up to 80%.[4] This would lower fuel expenses - which account for up to 60% percent of the total ship operating costs - and thereby reduce emissions.[4,5]

Ongoing challenges include making composite containers strong enough to withstand the stacking, sometimes as many as 12 high, as well as making them fireproof.[4,6] Furthermore, manufacturing containers using composites currently costs three times as much as steel.[7] Lightweight materials are improving and becoming less expensive with technology, and the business case becomes more competitive when fuel prices are high.[7]

When will it become accepted practice that containers are constructed with lightweight materials?

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[1] Blume Global, (2020), A Guide to Intermodal Shipping Containers and Containerization
[2] Bison, (2020), How Much Does a Shipping Container Weight?
[3] Koenig, (2016), A Brief History of Shipping Containers
[4] Yildiz, T. (2019), Design and Analysis of a Lightweight Composite Shipping Container Made of Carbon Fiber Laminates.
[5] Stratiotis, E., (2018), Fuel Costs in Ocean Shipping
[6] Truman, C., (2016), Green Buildings: How to Start A Shipping Container Building Project.
[7] Plastics Today, (2014), Composites could revolutionize shipping containers
More information:
Champion Freight, (2019), Largest Container Ship
Rutherford, S., (2017), Traceable, Foldable Containers Stacking Up the Benefits
Rodrigue, J., (2020), The Repositioning of Empty Containers
Sanders, U., Riedle, J., Kloppsteck, L., Roeloffs, C. & Schlingmeier, J. 2015. Think out side your Boxes: Solving the Global container-Repositing puzzle.
Kristiansen, T., (2012), Empty containers cost Maersk Line USD 1 billion a year
Flynn, M., (2020), Solving the problem of empty shipping containers


By Matthew J. Spaniol