Imbalance in Trade Prompts Clever Solution for Empty Containers

Massive U.S. trade deficits with countries like China are still as prevalent as ever, resulting in one of the biggest hidden costs to the shipping industry– back-hauling of empty containers.

Drewry Shipping Consultants estimates that there were over 82 million port to port moves of empty TEUs worldwide in 2010.  The Port of Los Angeles alone reported 831,370 empty TEU shipments during the first half of 2011, representing over 42% of their outbound container traffic.  This should come as little surprise given the massive rift in the trade balance between the U.S. and China.  According to PIERS data, U.S. imports from China reached nearly 4.1 million TEUs in the first half of 2011, while exports during the same period represented only 1.2 million TEUs, (of which the Port of Los Angeles handled approximately 27% of this export traffic).

US-Trade-Deficit-With-ChinaTop US Ports Trading with China

While the U.S. trade imbalance is most prevalent among countries in Asia, this problem is not exclusive to westerly trade lanes, nor is it always the case that a lack of U.S. exports adds to the deficit. Michael McDaid of Sea Star Line noted, “There are approximately four full loads moving to Puerto Rico for every full container returning to the U.S.”

Assuming a conservative average cost of approximately $200 per TEU for each empty container move in North America (terminal fees, storage depot fee and dray), the cost to carriers to move empties out of North America alone would have exceeded $1.6 billion in 2009, representing over 8.2 million incidences of port to port empty container moves according to Drewry.

This estimate of carrier cost for handling empty container moves does not include additional costs for land-side repositioning, where relevant, or the additional time ships spend docked at a terminal while empty containers are loaded and unloaded.

Another important metric related to empty container back-haul is the carbon footprint associated with moving empty containers. Each empty container move involves fuel and electrical consumption by ships, terminals, trucks, and railroads. While the true environmental impact of empty containers is difficult to measure, shippers issuing quarterly sustainability report cards are likely to be sensitive to these issues.

Various opportunities for minimizing the cost to carriers for empty container back-haul are currently either being explored or implemented to one degree or another, including: trans-loading, matching cargo to back-haul slots to reduce empty frequency, and active container-to-slot capacity management to avoid one-off ship moves dedicated to empty repositioning.

A more radical approach to reducing the energy, cost and effort to back haul containers to points of origin is the concept of folding containers.  One such design that was recently developed and is due to start CSC testing and certification later this year is New Jersey based startup Staxxon.  Over the last two years the firm has developed, prototyped, and patented technology that allows up to five empty ISO steel containers to be folded and “nested” so that the nested set can be moved in the same space as one standard dry 20’ or 40’ container.

While folding empty containers has been tried in the past and is also being developed by other companies, the approach used by Staxxon preserves the fundamental structural elements of the ISO steel container by folding from left-to-right (like an accordion) vs. the collapsing methods used by others.  This vertical design leaves each of the corner posts intact while folding to meet the current standards for racking, stacking, and related CSC test and certification requirements, which the company plans to start testing at Marine Container Equipment Certification Corp. in Farmingdale, New Jersey.

“If empty containers can be folded and nested at off-terminal storage depots, then moved in sets of 2, 3, 4, or 5 containers occupying the same space and dimensions as one container, container fleet owners and terminal operators could see as much as an 80% reduction in terminal ‘touches’ once the empty container nest is inside the terminal,” said George Kochanowski, CEO/Founder at Staxxon.  “Our target is for the incremental cost of container manufacturing, maintenance, and repair for Staxxon folding/nesting container technology to be recovered in as few as 12-18 nested container transits, depending on the terminal costs for the relevant trade lanes.”

Staxxon recently announced commercial production of 20’ standard dry containers based on its folding and nesting technology by New Jersey based Sea Box. The containers produced by Sea Box will be used to complete CSC certification at Marine Container Equipment Certification Corp. and commence non-commercial trials at marine and inland terminals as well as on container ships. The company closed a $1 million seed funding round in early 2011 and expects to announce a further round of funding in Q3 2011 that will enable commercial trials as well as development and production of 40’ standard and high cube prototypes that will use the Staxxon folding and nesting technology.

While the new folding/nesting concept from Staxxon sounds like it could be a win-win for carriers and terminal operators, the concept will likely live or die based on adoption and buy-in from all the parties involved.  Owners of container fleets will need to make a significant initial investment to realize future savings. While trucking and rail companies in the U.S. could be motivated by increased efficiency when evaluating the additional time to nest the folding containers, it is unclear how those receiving the nested containers overseas would respond to the additional burden of separating the nested containers.  Ultimately only time will tell, but whether it’s folding containers, trans-loading, or some other solution, as long as there are trade imbalances, carriers and terminal operators will continue to be challenged by empty containers.

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