Why Are There So Many Shipping Containers in the United States?

April 6, 2018

Where Does the U.S. Get All of These Shipping Containers?

They mostly come from China. The United States imports a lot of things from China, but we don’t export nearly as much back -- this is called trade deficit -- so we end up with empty shipping containers piling up in our ports. With China creating almost all of the new shipping containers that are built each year (that’s a hundred thousand or so. Every year), we can only assume there will be a constant supply here in the United States for the future as far as we can imagine.

What Does Trade Deficit Have to Do With It?

The trade deficit between the United States and China has been pretty massive since at least 1985 when the deficit was 6 million. According to Census.gov, in February 2018, that number has jumped to 29.2 Million and that is 9.5 times as high as it was even in 2008. So what does our trade deficit with China have to do with all of the empty shipping containers in our country? It means that we are importing, or bringing in, much more from them than we are exporting, or sending back. Because they are an ocean away from us, it only makes sense that the use of shipping containers would be a common practice. Even though an average of 568 containers fall into the seas and oceans each year, most of them make it to our shores unharmed. And since we empty the containers but have nothing to return inside of them, it means they sit in our ports and rot -- or else get reused in some other fashion, like many tiny homes, retail shops, and apartments you’ve probably heard of or seen come about in recent years.

What Happens to All of the Shipping Containers?

While many of them do actually sit in our ports unused and rusting away, like back in 2001, when the city of Chicago was so filled up with empty shipping containers, getting “tagged” or filled up with graffiti, that their city council issued restrictions on how many empty containers could be piled on top of one another, many people over the years have discovered how cost effective they can be when used for other purposes. From offices to mobile storage, apartments to retail shops, people have been designing and reusing empty shipping containers in all sorts of ways. At Tuff Box, we have created affordable rental storage and office containers for people that can’t get all the way to a large port like Chicago. And we supplied the shipping containers used in the courtyard at Tulsa’s Inner Circle Vodka Bar.

In Europe, people have been developing new ways to utilize the containers, such as this stairway in London. Others have also turned them into restaurants, schools, swimming pools, and garages. So while there may be a lot of empty shipping containers around, they are getting put to good use, as well.

What is the Process?

Generally speaking, in order for a shipping container to get from one place to another it has to begin somewhere, filled with items. For instance, China will ship clothes or tools or toys to the United States and fill hundreds, if not thousands, of shipping containers with their products and send them off in a ship to us over here in the United States. These containers spend months in the weather getting rained on, beat up, and sometimes, lost at sea. Once they finally reach their destination port here, companies unload their containers (after getting all of the proper paperwork completed and audits addressed) and then we have an empty shipping container sitting in the port.

Now, as we outlined earlier, from here, the container normally sits here, instead of going back to China (or elsewhere), because the United States doesn’t send much out again (exporting) which would utilize these containers. Sometimes we do. But a lot of the time, we don’t and the containers sit in our ports until someone gets tired of them, or a vendor or broker decides to buy or sell some of them. That’s where we would come in. We have connections with various companies looking to sell containers, and we use these connections to obtain the different types of containers that we offer in our yards.

After we make a few phone calls and close a few deals, we have to get the containers from the ports to our stock yards. We do this the same way we get the containers delivered to your location; we use tilt bed trucks. We load up trucks and have the newly acquired stock of shipping containers delivered to our yards. Voila. After months or years of work, the container sits in our yard, where we inspect them, clean them, paint some of them, and customize others.

Customized Shipping Containers?

Yes. For those customers that want to use the containers for a very specific purpose and want the container to look more like their brand or possibly just less like a typical used shipping container, we offer all sorts of options such as vinyl wraps, painting, as well as adding windows, doors, lighting, electrical, and much more.

Final Destination

Finally, each container finds a home with a new customer and thus ends the lifecycle of some of those containers. Others may get used as survival shelters (we’ve helped with a few of those), ticket booths, offices, or even container homes, but ultimately, after they get purchased and moved away from the port, the shipping container finds a new “home” and stays put, where it will spend many more years in service, due to their built-in durability and strength.

So while there may be many, many shipping containers in the United States, it appears there is a surge in peoples’ desire to reuse them and/or find new uses for them, just as we have.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our custom shipping container options, contact us here, or find more information here.

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