There have been plenty of stories about COVID-related shortages of everything from semiconductor chips to toilet paper. CNN adds shipping containers to that category. What used to be a fairly cheap commodity—as recently as a year ago you could rent a 40-foot steel container on a ship bound from China to Europe for under $2,000—has increasingly become scarce and expensive. Booking that same container costs more like $14,000 these days. How the dominos fell: The pandemic caused big shipping lines to cancel a slew of sailings. As a result, when things started to heat up again, those empty boxes hadn’t been brought back to China.
And the situation has only persisted. That’s due to a number of reasons. A lot of what is transported in reverse—to China—is cheap stuff like waste paper. With shipping prices where they’re at, those trips don’t make financial sense right now. But on the flip side, getting empty containers back to China ASAP does make sense, because exports command such a high price; that has inland firms struggling to get shipping lines to lose the time sending boxes to them.
Further, there’s a bottleneck at ports, with ships taking as much as four times as long to dock and unload, further reducing the number of available containers. Indeed, the South China Morning Post reported that China’s major Ningbo-Zhoushan Port was locked down Aug. 11 due to a dock worker’s positive case of the delta variant; things weren’t back to normal for a full 14 days.
And all this comes amid record production: The Wall Street Journal reported in early August that the 5.4 million 20-foot-equivalent units of the steel containers are expected to be produced this year, largely in China; in 2019 the corresponding figure was 2.8 million. As one expert put it to the Journal, in principle, there are more than enough containers out there; in reality, they’re languishing where they shouldn’t be. (A Brooklyn home made of shipping containers recently sold for $5 million.)