Innovations in container shipping

Context of Transport Climate Action

Transporting goods via containers has risen considerably over the past decades. Currently, the largest ships in the world can carry up to 19,000 twenty feet containers (or TEU) between continents. These containers then are transported by road, rail or inland waterway transport to their final destination. Many innovations are in development to maximize the load factor of the cargo inside the containers or to transport the container in a more environmentally friendly way. However, there are also innovations possibly for the container itself that can potentially reduce the environmental impact of its transportation.

New materials and advanced technologies can be used to design more lightweight shipping containers. Due to the reduced weight of the shipping containers themselves, the weight of the cargo inside the container could be therefore increased. Even without increasing the weight of the cargo simply by reducing the weight of the container less energy is needed to transport it.


An example of a lightweight container is the Secure Hybrid Composite Container with embedded with sensors to facilitate security and tamper-free supply chains. This container was developed in the CORE research program by JRC (Joint Research Center), GT (USA based Georgia Tech) and Maersk (a major shipping company). The container weighs 1,995 kg instead of the standard 2,300 kg, a difference of 305 kg (or 13.2% lighter), which can translate to a significant increase of the load factor, and in large CO2 reductions.

Other examples of lightweight containers include the HighQ composite containers developed by DSM and Samskip. These containers are 20% lighter than regular ones.

Other examples of container innovations are foldable containers. These container can be folded and stacked when they are empty. A stack of 4 empty, folded containers can be carried in the space that would be required for just one container, saving some 75% of the storage space. The repositioning of empty containers can then be carried out with fewer movements. This translated into a fuel reduction of up to 25% for sea transport and up to 46% on road transport.


The development of new types of containers is usually driven by the desire to reduce the weight of containers, to allow more cargo to be loaded and/or to lower the overall weight of a loaded container. The challenges in the implementation and adoption of alternative containers to reduce the weight of the container also need to safeguard the:

  • stiffness of a container;
  • strength of a container;
  • cargo capacity of a container (volume and weight);
  • fire resistance of a container;
  • thermal insulation of a container;
  • repairability of a container;
  • end-of-life recyclability of a container;
  • compliance to ISO standards.

The R&D and engineering that go into improved containers can therefore take quite some time. First the actual production needs to take place and be tested in the field, to establish performance levels and identify other considerations the industry may have (e.g. maintenance, cost-benefit analysis, etc.). Secondly, deploying them can also take years and requires concerted and dedicated efforts to make people change from the producers. This dedication can be hard to come by in the highly volatile economic environment of international trade and varying levels of interest in using alternative containers.


Improved containers can have several benefits:

  • Lightweight containers can improve the load factor of container transport (the same amount of cargo is divided by a lower total weight)
  • Lightweight containers can reduce the amount of steel required to produce a container.
  • Foldable containers can reduce the number of repositioning movements
  • Foldable containers can reduce the storage space required for empty containers

Potential for scaling up

Improved containers can potentially replace the vast quantities of containers in international transport. In 2010 the number of exported containers through international shipping trade amounted to 114.3 million TEUs. This figure of container movements is only one part of the potential market of improved containers: domestic transport and internationally traded containers carried over rail, road, inland waterways and by short sea shipping are not even included in this figure.

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Global, mitigation, freight, rail, shipping, technology