The U.S. Is Sending Hundreds of Thousands of Empty Shipping Containers Across the Ocean

Shipping containers are stacked at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s busiest container port, on November 7, 2019 in San Pedro, California.

Shipping containers are stacked at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s busiest container port, on November 7, 2019 in San Pedro, California.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)

In our latest proof that global capitalism is extremely logical and efficient, hundreds of thousands of completely empty shipping containers are being transported overseas amid the pandemic, according to an analysis by Earther.

Sending cargo ships on trips across the world when they’re full is damaging enough to the climate as well as ocean ecosystems. But shipping empty containers is downright unconscionable given the scope of the crisis.

Using export data from U.S. Customs and Border Protections compiled by trader intelligence data firm Import Genius, Earther analyzed thousands of U.S. export records marked “empty container” shipped by Thor Joergensen A/S, a supplier based in Denmark whose largest customer is Maersk Logistics.

We found that in 2020, 668,086 empty containers were shipped to foreign ports around the world, 12 times more than in 2019. At the height of this empty container frenzy, in November 2020, 87,000 ghost containers were exported, 87 times more than at same time in 2019.

The wasteful practice is tied to online shopping habits that have popped up due to the pandemic. If you’ve found yourself doing way more online shopping this past year, you’re not alone. E-commerce grew an estimated 16.5% in 2020, churning out $3.9 trillion in sales globally. This has been great for Asian markets, especially China because people living in the U.S. are buying far more imported products than normal.

U.S. ports, however, haven’t been able to keep up with all those imports, especially because they are experiencing labor shortages due to covid-19 and state-mandated restrictions on gathering. With fewer workers around to unload and unpack all this cargo, a backlog of containers has been piling up.

That backlog is also creating a delay in how quickly foreign markets are receiving these containers to fill back up. Usually, domestic shippers would wait to send the giant boxes across the ocean until they were loaded up with U.S. goods to be sent overseas. But since that’s taking much longer these days and shippers abroad are desperate for containers to refill with the goods Americans are buying and are willing to pay a premium for them, it’s more lucrative now for the shipping companies to simply send empty containers overseas. Increasingly, carriers are emptying ships at ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles, then immediately putting the unloaded, empty containers back onto the vessels to go back to Asia.

Using export data from U.S. Customs and Border Protections compiled by trader intelligence data firm Import Genius, Earther analyzed thousands of U.S export records marked “empty container” shipped by THOR JOERGENSEN A/S, a supplier based in Denmark whose largest customer is Maersk Logistics.

Screenshot: Earther

The roughly 5,500-mile (8,851-kilometer) route from Los Angeles to Yokohama, Japan has been particularly popular. Since January 2020, ships filled with empty containers have taken this route 188 times, netting close to 900,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) traveled. That’s as many miles as two round trips to the moon.

This is an environmental nightmare on multiple levels. For one, some of the domestically-produced items that would normally go into those containers before they go abroad are food. As the Counter recently reported, due to this disrupted supply chain—and the fact that Americans are buying more imported products during the pandemic because they’re doing so much more online shopping—many domestic exporters are currently unable to send grains and potatoes to other countries. This is an economic disaster for exporters and farmers. It also means food items are spoiling on farms and in storage, wasting the energy it took to grow and harvest those crops and, in some cases, also transport, process, and package them.

“Shipping lines will not take export-loaded containers if there is an empty container ready and available to go back,” Jessica Brady, a marketing and sales manager at logistics company Hillebrand, told the Counter. “Because you can turn an empty container in Asia faster than you can turn a loaded agricultural product.”

Sending all these empty boxes overseas is also creating carbon pollution. Shipping is a highly polluting industry, accounting for 2.2% of global carbon emissions according to the United Nations International Maritime Organization. According to one estimate, one giant container ship can emit as much pollution as much as 50 million cars.

From our analysis, we found that since January 2020, at least 80 different container ships have been fully packed up with more than 900 empty containers to be sent from the U.S. to foreign ports. These ships have made more than 200 trips.

For shipping companies this is cost effective, but only because they’re not forced to pay the full price of their pollution. In essence, companies are raking in more money through this wasteful practice while offloading the environmental cost of excess carbon pollution onto the rest of us and generations to come.

Analysts expect that as the pandemic eases up and people begin heading back to work, clogged supply chain to be cleared up within the first or second quarter of this year, but the environmental issues with shipping didn’t start with covid-19. At the port of Los Angeles, which is the U.S.’s biggest for container cargo, 75% of all containers going back to Asia are currently empty, an official from the port told Bloomberg this month. But he also said that the rate is normally 50%.

The International Maritime Organization aims to bring carbon emissions from the shipping industry down by 40% compared to 2008 levels by 2030 and decarbonize the shipping sector completely by the end of the century. Maersk is working to launch a carbon-neutral ship by 2023 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Meeting these goals—or better, meeting far more ambitious ones—will be easier if the industry isn’t expending emissions on sending super-polluting vessels packed with empty boxes across the ocean.

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