Date: 18.03.2021

The true environmental impact of empty containers

Environmentalists have long voiced concerns about the CO2 emission damage of the global shipping fleet. They believe that shipping laden containers are doing untold damage to the climate and are extremely concerned about the volume of empty containers that have been travelling the globe recently.

Using public-access data in the United States, ‘green’ researchers found that in 2020, 668,086 empty containers were shipped to origin ports, 12 times more than in 2019.

In November 2020, a total of 87,000 empty containers were exported, 87 times more than at the same time in 2019, enough to fill eight Very Large Container Ships (VLCS).

Due to the pandemic, shopping habits have changed with far more online shopping, growing the global eCommerce market by 16.5% and $3.9 trillion in 2020.

Great news for Asia suppliers and factories that have never had fuller order books, but global supply chain operations are impeded by COVID-safe working practices, which means that destination ports (particularly in the US and Europe) have been unable to cope with the volume of imports. 

With operational capacity reduced and fewer workers around to work vessels and move containers, the ensuing disruption has seen the backlog of containers piling up.

That backlog is also creating a delay in how quickly these containers are made available at origin to fill back up.

Usually, the carriers would wait for containers to be loaded with export consignments before being returned to origin but, diminished operational capacity (due to COVID-safe working practices) is impacting warehouses, transhipment hubs and every other supply chain touchpoint, which means containers moving inland can be ‘lost’ for weeks.

Since that option makes an export container unavailable for such an extended time and factories in Asia are desperate for containers to refill with the goods that domestic consumers are buying and are willing to pay a premium for them, it’s more lucrative for the shipping lines to simply send the empty containers back, without waiting for a return load.

Increasingly, carriers are emptying ships at ports in the UK, Europe and US, then loading empty containers back onto the vessels for a swift departure to Asia.

The roughly 5,500-mile route from Los Angeles to Yokohama, Japan has been particularly popular.

Since January 2020, ships filled with empty containers have taken this route 188 times, netting close to 900,000 miles, or the equivalent of two round trips to the moon.

Very simply, shipping lines will not take export-loaded containers if there is an empty container ready and available to go back because you can turn an empty container in Asia faster than you can turn a loaded export container.

The environmentalists’ analysis found that since January 2020, at least 80 different container ships have been loaded with more than 900 empty containers, making over 200 trips from the US. A practice, they believe, the shipping lines use because they are not compelled to pay the full price of their pollution. In essence, carriers are making much more profit through this wasteful practice while offloading the environmental cost of excess carbon pollution.

The International Maritime Organization aims to bring carbon emissions from the shipping industry down by 40% compared to 2008 levels by 2030 and decarbonise the shipping sector completely by the end of the century.

For the environmental lobby, meeting these goals will be easier if the industry isn’t expending emissions on sending vessels packed with empty boxes across the ocean.

With standardised reporting, we provide a range of effective carbon offset options, and our customers can review benchmarks to compare carriers’ environmental performance to make informed buying decisions.

We track CO2 emissions by shipment, mode, route and fuel type, using globally accepted standards and methodologies for measuring emissions.

Although additional costs are attached to these initiatives, they deliver a measurable result and mean that, in principle, Metro shippers could go neutral tomorrow.

For further information, and to discuss environmental ambitions, please contact Kevin Lake.