Shipping container recycling may soon be coming to a town near you. These are the same containers we use for some of our SCIFs. These tractor trailer-sized containers 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 makes 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.

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The idea sprang up in the 1960s in South Korea almost by accident. This was before South Korea had a container shipping infrastructure. Part of the problem was 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 turned them into housing. Instead of prosecuting them, the company hired the miscreants who had pilfered the containers. This solved both the theft and logistical nightmares 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 traverse the high seas year after year.

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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 because no one in the freight hauling industry wants used containers. They become orphans because 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 are abandoned. It isn’t unusual to see dozens or even hundreds of them stacked in neighborhoods near ports, sometimes creating man-made canyons that block out the sun. Instead of looking at these discards as urban blight, enterprising entrepreneurs have turned one man’s trash into another man’s treasure. Thus, the container recycling business was born.

Reuse, Repurpose

SCIF GlobalTaken at face value, repurposing containers seems like a low cost alternative to traditional construction methods.  The process isn’t as simple as you might think, however. 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 that is 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 schools have been constructed using these industrial castoffs. When you consider that more than 120,000 containers arrive in US ports of call every day, this growth industry makes perfect sense.

Jaye Andone is in the modular construction business as president of SCIF Global Technologies. Go to to find our more or to request a brochure.