A Matter of Containment

Summer 2011
The fiber plastic composite contain¬ers have built-in GPS tracking devices and flotation capabilities.

As the costs of trans-ocean shipping continue to increase and the supply chain more actively embraces sustainability, a new concept in intermodal shipping containers could represent a significant shift in how trans-ocean cargo is transported, handled and stored.

From a cost perspective, when an in­termodal shipping container arrives at its destination port and is off loaded, most ports will provide container dray­age from the shipping dock to either a nearby logistics depot/distribution center or alternatively an intermodal facility, to be transferred to railcar or truck. At the terminus of the supply chain, when break bulk has occurred, these containers either remain empty in storage yards or are returned to the destination port empty. Industry experts note that as many as 25 per­cent of these containers are ultimately loaded back onto ships and returned to the point of export without cargo. Due to such, shipping lines must charge significantly higher fees to offset this lack of backhaul revenue.

Climate experts agree that greenhouse gas emissions from international mari­time transport are of critical impor­tance. While such groups as the Coun­cil Working Party on Shipbuilding and others discuss potential shipbuilding innovations, other interim steps are clearly necessary. One of these interim steps may be the collapsible shipping container, which is simply a shipping container constructed of fiber plastic composite materials which can be folded flat. Invented by Cargoshell BV, a Dutch company based in Rotterdam, collapsible containers, according to company claims:

  • occupy a quarter of the volume when folded, reducing need for space on railcars, trucks and trans­port ships when backhauled empty;
  • reduce internal condensation due to the insulating nature of the composite materials;
  • do not corrode and have easier-to-control temperature due to vapor-tight composite walls;
  • contain built-in GPS tracking devices and floatation capabilities, minimizing potential container loss; and
  • generate 75 percent fewer CO2 emissions.
Folded cargoshell on a truck

According to Dutch company Cargoshell, collapsible shipping containers occupy a quarter of the volume when folded.

Notwithstanding these potential benefits, there are many obstacles to success. These include, but are not limited to:

  • the underlying cost, estimated to be up to three times higher than a steel container;
  • potential objections of the long­shoreman’s union who would need to include the new containers in their collective bargaining agree­ments;
  • specialized equipment, including rail and track chassis, that may be required; and
  • additional coordination required by the shipping lines to differenti­ate between steel and collapsible containers and their commensurate placement shipboard.

In what may be the largest barrier to entry, the International Organization for Standardization, (ISO) which de­velops classification and test methods for intermodal shipping containers, has yet to certify collapsible contain­ers — a must in order for these containers to be accepted by the shipping lines.

According to Joe Harris, media/pub­lic relations manager at the Port of Virginia, collapsible containers are decades away from being a reality. “There are so many variables that it is hard to say what the future holds for this technology. At some point I’m sure it will fill a niche. Ultimately, its success or failure will boil down to cost and need.” While collapsible shipping containers are clearly innovative and may hold promise, only time will tell if that promise turns into widespread industry acceptance and usage.

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