Shipping containers are everywhere! We see them on the back of trucks and trains and stacked high on container ships. They are used to transport many of the goods we import and export, and are commonly used for onsite storage, for offices, for homes and many other uses besides. Yet a question we are often asked (but not able to answer easily) is ‘how many shipping containers are there in the world’?
There are already a number of estimates suggesting the global container fleet is anywhere between 5 million and 170 million shipping containers. In this article we will try and do better by using our industry knowledge to work out a much more accurate number.
No records exist!
The main issue when trying to work out how many containers exist in the world is that there are no exact records. No one person or organisation is responsible for keeping a count (or if they do they won’t say!)
In the car industry, knowing how many cars have been built worldwide is hard enough considering the wide array of manufacturers around the world from the likes of Honda and Ford all the way down to a group of enthusiasts building their own kit car. Knowing how many cars are actually on the road and being used or just rusting away in a barn or on a scrap heap is much harder to answer.
In the shipping container industry the problem is similar. There are many shipping container factories in the Far East churning out shipping containers at an alarming rate, but we can’t assume these factories are running at capacity as often they are closed to restrict supply when demand falls.
Once these shipping containers are out of the factory and into a major fleet, the question is further compounded. These fleet owners won’t publish how may containers they own, but they will advise their fleet TEU size, or the number of twenty foot equivalent units that make up their fleet. (TEU – Twenty foot Equivalent Unit i.e. a 20ft container is 1 TEU, a 40ft container is 2 TEU). Conservatively, approximately two- thirds of shipping containers are 40ft containers, so we estimate a typical 10,000 TEU fleet will be made up of 4000x 40ft containers (8000 TEU) and 2000x 20ft containers (2000 TEU). Another way to look at this, the number of actual shipping containers will be broadly 60% of the TEU value when looking at very large fleets.
In addition, non standard sizes such as 30ft containers account for a tiny proportion of shipping containers in circulation, and 10ft containers aren’t really used to move freight around the world anymore so we are not really able to include these containers in our calculation for ease of numbers.
The best way we can start to answer the question, ‘how many shipping containers are in the world’, is look at who owns the shipping containers that are in service and work with published market figures.
Who owns all the Shipping Containers?
The vast majority of shipping containers currently being used to move freight around the world are owned by either a leasing company or a shipping line. Shipping lines are companies that physically own and run the container ships that sail the oceans. Some shipping lines own all their containers, some own some of their containers and rent the rest from a leasing company, and some own none of their containers and lease all their shipping containers.
Shipping Containers in service
An ‘in service’ shipping container is one that is currently being used to carry freight around the world.
So how many are ‘in service’ right now? Major shipping lines don’t usually want to publish how many containers they own or how many shipping containers are under their control at any time. This may be a good measure of utilisation and competitiveness versus their competitors.
Note: Many shipping lines won’t even give an exact answer to how many containers can fit on their boats for similar reasons. The maximum physical capacity is published, but when it comes to filling a boat with loaded shipping containers the weights involved may restrict the total capacity of the boat and this REAL capacity figure is usually a closely guarded secret.
So to find the answer we’ve tried a few different approaches:
Firstly, November 2015 saw two of the largest leasing companies, TAL International and Triton Containers, announcing their merger. From their press releases at the time we can take some interesting & publicly available market analysis to help us estimate the total number of shipping containers in the world. This merger created a combined fleet of 4.8 million TEU and a combined share of 25% of the leasing market. This makes the leasing market approx 19.2 million TEU in size or approx 13.5 million containers.
However, as we know, the leasing companies only own a proportion of the shipping containers in use; the majority of shipping lines also own a good number of shipping containers. So very broadly we estimate a very rough 50:50 split between leasing company ownership and shipping line ownership, meaning a global ‘in service’ fleet size of 38.5m TEU or circa 23 million actual shipping containers.
Secondly, we also have the World Shipping Council quoting Drewary Maritime research. This estimates the global shipping container fleet size of 32.9 million TEU in 2012, estimated to grow by 1.6 million TEU in 2013. This suggests our estimate above is close to other published estimates.
Thirdly, we also checked Textainer’s website. Textainer were the largest leasing company in the world before the TAL and Triton merger, with an owned fleet in excess of 1 million containers. They themselves boast an approx 8% share of containers in service suggesting an in service fleet size in excess of 12.5 million physical containers. The most recently available online version of the Harrison consulting report (that Textainer refer to in their investor documents) reports a global fleet size of 28.2 million TEU in 2010, and estimated 32.3 million TEU in 2012. This broadly agrees with our figures, although it is worth mentioning that the two major leasing companies may share sources for some of their information.
Ex-service Shipping Containers
As well as the shipping containers that are currently in service there are a couple of other large groups of shipping containers to consider. The first are the shipping containers in existence that are no longer in service, for example, those we sell on a daily basis to farmers, schools, small industrial units etc…. There are no firm figures available on these either; however, we can make some assumptions as follows:
When we sell on a used shipping container, after 12-14 years in service (broad average figure), we estimate that it will still offer up to or over a decade of good solid use. Many go on for a lot longer, even put to good use as dry storage containers when they are way beyond being repairable. We’ve often had customers source containers to hang signage from, to block an entrance to a field to stop fly tippers, trespassers or travellers entering the land, to provide sea defences and more. One could argue that they are barely definable as a shipping container before they go out for these uses. So the main issues here are 1) the lack of industry figures for the numbers and types of sales for equipment when it’s sold from ‘in service’ use and 2) how do you define a shipping container? Is a shipping container with no doors and no roof still a shipping container? What if it’s now part of a structure for a house or office block?
These issues aside, we can take a very broad estimate here as well. If there are 23 million containers in service which last approximately 12 years on average, based on an average 8 year lifespan* after their effective service, we can assume there are approximately 14 million ex-service containers in the world, split between storage containers sitting on people’s land, shipper owned containers being used for one off export shipments, and containers that might have been converted for other uses.
* This average 8 year lifespan is little more than an educated guess.
New Shipping Containers
The final major group left to consider are New (or one trip) Shipping Containers that are not ‘in service’.
Container traders like us will often buy in new containers direct from the factories in China. They do one trip into the destination country – usually carrying freight inside to help keep the transport costs low. These are known as ‘one trip containers’ and we commonly suggest them as best value when looking at building projects, very long term storage requirements (10 years plus) or when a customer needs a much smarter shipping container than a dented used container that may also have surface rust showing.
These containers will only be ‘in service’ for the one trip they make and they won’t typically be considered part of a shipping line or leasing company stock. Commonly, to get them into the UK, a shipping line will offer to take them from the factory in China and move them to somewhere like the UK for ‘nearly free’. Using the UK as an example, making use of these one trip containers to move freight reduces the number of empty containers these shipping lines need to ship back to China – so everyone wins.
However, these containers aren’t owned by the shipping line, and quite commonly aren’t owned by a leasing company either. It’s a comparatively small market, but these containers once sat in a country are likely to sit static, and as a result will last a lot longer than a typical; ‘ex service’ shipping container.
Getting an exact figure for the total number of New Shipping Containers is compounded further by the way the leasing companies operate. These guys may spend over a billion dollars annually buying shipping containers, and they have arguably the best buying power in the market for anyone who sells a shipping container. One of these leasing companies may order a batch of 100 new containers and send them to the UK, but they may not decide whether they are for their own fleet or for sale until they find a customer for the containers. Two of our top five suppliers of new build shipping containers run this exact system.
So we’re going to estimate this figure based on little more than hearsay. We believe from industry sources that circa 3.67 Million TEU of containers are built annually (in recent years, this market has been growing at a healthy rate, so we also need to factor for a much smaller market 20 years ago). This means an ‘in service’ global fleet size of 38.5m TEU and an average fleet age of approx 12 years. We know the shipping lines and leasing companies need to order approx 3.2 Million TEU per year to keep their fleets topped up, so very close to 500,000 TEU or about 300,000 Shipping Containers a year must make up the ‘new’ market.
Unfortunately we believe this figure will be further distorted as a much larger proportion of new containers are 20ft shipping containers when compared to the global ‘in service fleet’, so the number of containers may be slightly higher than our estimate. However, taking this figure of 300,000 Shipping Containers per year and offering an average 20 year lifespan, this would give us approx 10 million TEU or 6 million shipping containers globally that are in existence and that were never in service.
Our best estimate
So let’s put together the estimates we have come up with so far:
- 23 million shipping ‘in service’ containers or 38.5 million TEU
- 14 million ‘ex-service shipping containers or 23.3 million TEU
- 6 million ‘new’ shipping containers or 10 Million TEU
This gives us a total 43 million Shipping Containers or around 72 Million TEU
Please note that when referring to the number of shipping containers in the world most people only consider ‘in service’ containers. This might explain some distortions between our figures and other estimates, however, if reading this you should happen to have any additional information or corrections that you would like to share with us then we would love to hear from you – please contact us.
One thing we can be certain of is that this estimate will only increase! The shipping container industry has been growing steadily since its inception. The recent recession has caused a blip, but as the world economy globalises, the numbers of container vessels, ports, depots and physical containers will continue to grow.
In reality the number of shipping containers in circulation globally is a result of the growth in the shipping container logistics industry. As the market grows there will be an ever increasing number of shipping containers being sold into the market, and although they are recyclable, we are seeing more and more innovative uses come through that offer great re-purposing options for shipping containers.
One might suggest that an ever increasing supply may push market prices down; but we would argue that this is unlikely in the long term. Shipping containers don’t cost a whole lot more than the scrap metal value and when the container price is depressed and the steel price high we do know that some of the major fleet owners will scrap huge volumes of containers, which helps restrict supply.