The History of Shipping Containers

A Brief History of Shipping Containers:


ISO (International Organization for Standardization)

Shipping containers are used to transport goods all over the world. It is estimated that 90 percent of the world’s trade goods are moved in containers. One hundred million container loads crisscross the world’s oceans each year in over 5,000 container ships. There is a very big chance that a lot of the stuff you own or buy came to you in a shipping container. But these shipping containers create problems too. After they are used a few times, they become used shipping containers and nobody wants them. These containers currently have no real use since it is not cost effective to return empty containers to their point of origin. One estimate is $900 per container for the average return trip.

Since it’s cheaper to manufacture new shipping containers on the opposite side of the ocean than to transport the empty ones back, the shipping container industry continues to produce more of them each and every year. You might say that shipping containers are a renewable resource of sorts.


But unlike bamboo, or other sustainable resources, shipping containers do not “grow” benignly. They are not (yet) harmless in their effect on the environment. In fact, they are stacked, dozens of containers high, in port cities and areas around inland freight transit terminals. In some residential neighborhoods, these mountainous stacks of hundreds of thousands of empty shipping containers actually cast a shadow causing the sun to “set” an hour earlier than in the surrounding area! So, they are already impacting the lifestyle of some coastal residents.

Besides being an aesthetic nightmare, these shipping containers pose a serious waste disposal problem. Unless something is done, the environmental impact will only worsen. Twenty-one thousand containers hit American shores every day of the year, and tens of thousands reach the waterfronts of other countries, with many more at sea on any given day. This method of transporting goods is unlikely to change. As long as we are trading with Asia, there is going to be a glut of shipping containers. We can’t change this situation. What can change is how we look at it.

Rather than looking at these shipping containers as a waste disposal problem, we can choose to regard them as an abundance of potential building material. Shipping containers are readily available across the globe. So there is a bright spot in this darkening sky. Some architects and builders are beginning to take advantage of this surplus to recycle the containers. This then, is the first degree of reparation: to clean up the coastlines by recycling these used shipping containers. Recycling in this way will result in cleaner and healthier coastlines without creating another problem like huge areas of landfill.

There are several reasons for recycling shipping containers into homes rather than something else. One of the most important reasons is the amount of energy required to repurpose them. David Cross, a business development director, explains that melting down an 8000 lb steel shipping container to make steel beams, for example, requires 8000 kW-hrs of energy. The process of recycling that entire 8000 lbs of steel into a shipping container home takes only 400 kW-hrs of electrical energy or about 5% of the energy needed to melt it.

Reusing shipping containers in this way saves not only electrical energy but also the expenditure of human energy (time and labor costs) and the fuel used to ship them back to their country of origin. And since they are built to factory specifications, a lot of guesswork is eliminated. This reduces construction time for building crews and wasted materials. The nature of shipping containers as building material also allows for the possibility of a number of energy-saving designs. So shipping container homes are energy efficient in many ways.

Besides saving energy in a variety of ways, it is much kinder to the earth to recycle rather using shipping containers as landfill. Steel is not exactly compostable material. It is not magically going to turn into organic matter that will nourish plants. Why would we put our non-compostable into the earth that sustains us in so many ways? It seems illogical that we would dump reusable materials into landfills and let them sit there forever rather than recycle what we can.

Also, since the 1980s, scientists have repeatedly warned us that the world faces a landfill crisis. Former Vice President Al Gore, for example, asserted we are “running out of ways to dispose of our waste in a manner that keeps it out of either sight or mind.” Everything we make comes from natural resources. Sustainability is the only model that makes sense. Everything we manufacture should be easily re-tooled to be reusable . This is the proper role for technology. This is true harmony with the earth. This is the third degree of reparation.

The primary goal of building a green home is to reduce its environmental impact while also creating a healthy environment for its’ occupants. Architects and builders do this by emphasizing energy efficiency, reducing fresh water use, selecting materials that are free from harmful chemicals and sustainable, and by building in such a say that minimizes environmental disturbance.

Prefab design construction offers a number of unique opportunities to accomplish these goals. First, the control available in a factory environment allows the designer / builder to be very precise with material planning and use – there is very little waste left over when compared to standard construction techniques. Second, hard-to-find green materials can be bought in bulk and used over many projects, minimizing delays and ensuring that no “short cuts” are taken due to unavailable materials. Third, this bulk purchasing and the delivery of a small number of completed modules to the home site dramatically reduce pollution from transportation to and from the site. And finally, the disturbance of the home construction site can be minimized because there is no need to stage and store large amounts of material onsite for extended periods. All construction takes place off site in a factory. A good prefab contractor might clear only the house footprint itself and enough room to deliver the completed modules. Building a prefab shipping container home is earth friendly.

They also nearly eliminate the use of trees to build a home.