Invented nearly fifty years ago, shipping container recycling may soon be coming to a town near you. These are the same containers we use for some of our SCIFs, the same tractor trailer sized containers that are used daily to move everything from toys to televisions across the ocean and across continents. While sturdy, these units have a limited life on the high seas and on the open road. Then they are literally discarded, many to be cut up as scrap. However an enterprising band of scavengers and entrepreneurs make their living in or on the bones of shipping containers by recycling them into dwellings, offices, children’s playgrounds, storage units and even shopping malls.
The idea sprang up in the 1960s in South Korea almost by accident. This was in the time before South Korea had a container shipping infrastructure. Part of the problem was in dealing with the over-the-road transportation issues of getting the containers to and from the port. (Back then South Korea was not the industrial titan it is today.) The second issue was the fact that a number of the containers kept disappearing mysteriously. When the shipping company tracked the missing containers, they found that they were being repurposed by the locals, who were turning them into housing. Instead of prosecuting, the company hired the miscreants who had pilfered the containers, solving both a theft and logistical nightmare in one fell swoop.
It’s More than a Building in a Box
Originally developed in 1956 by Malcom Mclean, shipping containers are used to move mountains of material all over the world via ship, train and truck. Since its inception, containerized packaging has revolutionized the shipping industry. Where once it could take days to load cargo one pallet at a time, containerization makes it possible to load huge freighters quickly and efficiently. Today, more than one hundred million containers ply the high seas year in and year out.
That’s the plus side. On the negative, consider the tough environment in which they are used. After just a few trips around the globe, they are cast aside as used containers that no one in the freight hauling industry wants. They become orphans that no one wants since it costs an average of nine hundred dollars to ship an empty container back to its port of origin. Since it is cheaper to manufacture new containers than it is to return them to sender, many of them wind up abandoned. It isn’t at all unusual to see dozens or even hundreds of them stacked in neighborhoods near to ports, sometimes creating manmade canyons that block out the sun. So instead of looking at these discards as urban blight, what a number of enterprising entrepreneurs have done is turn one man’s trash into another man’s treasure. Thus the container recycling business was born.
Taken at face value, repurposing containers seems like a low cost alternative to traditional construction methods. But what many do not realize is the fact that the process isn’t as simple as you might think. Floors and doors need to be removed and windows and other openings need to be cut with a welder’s torch. Only then do you have a safe and sturdy construction module ready to use.
Both in the US and abroad, container construction continues to be a growth industry. Everything from single unit homes, offices and shops to multi-unit hotels, apartment buildings, dorms and even schools have been constructed using these industrial castoffs. So when you consider that more than 120,000 containers arrive in US ports of call each and every day, this is bound to be one growth industry that makes perfect sense in these difficult economic times.
Jaye Andone is in the modular construction business as president of SCIF Global Technologies. Go to http://scif-construction.com to find our more or to request a brochure.