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Container shipping - statistics & facts​

Maritime shipping is the backbone of world trade; it is estimated that some 80 percent of all goods are carried by sea. In terms of value, global maritime container trade is estimated to account for around 60 percent of all seaborne trade, which was valued at around 14 trillion U.S. dollars in 2019. While the number of goods carried by containers increased from around 102 million metric tons in 1980 to about 1.83 billion metric tons in 2017, vessels have likewise increased their capacity. Between 1980 and 2020, the deadweight tonnage of container ships has grown from about 11 million metric tons to around 275 million metric tons. With a total capacity of over four million TEUs*, Danish shipping line APM-Maersk is currently the largest container-shipping company globally, followed by MSC, COSCO, CMA CGM, and Hapag-Lloyd.

History of containers

Before the invention of the intermodal shipping container, goods were shipped in boxes of various sizes that had to be loaded and unloaded on and from ships manually by workers. Transporting goods this way was inefficient, expensive, and time-consuming. Moreover, it made loading cargo on different modes of transport overly difficult. When the first standardized intermodal shipping container was introduced in the 1950s, it caused a revolution in world trade. Shipping containers reduced both time and costs of shipping and enabled containerized goods to be easily moved between different means of transport. Efforts to improve the shipping container continued and in the 1970s, a refrigerated container (reefer) was invented. This means that even perishable goods such as food can be transported by sea, making container shipping even more popular. Between 2017 and 2026, the size of the intermodal freight transportation market is expected to almost triple, reaching the size of over 36 billion U.S. dollars in 2026.

Leading container ports

In 2019, the leading container-handling ports worldwide were located in the Asia-Pacific region. The port of Shanghai was the busiest container port in the world, handling over 43 million TEUs of containerized cargo in 2019. Outside the Asia-Pacific regions, North America and Europe are also important hubs for containerized cargo. In its 2020 fiscal year, the Port of Los Angeles handled almost 8.6 million TEUs, making it the largest container port in the United States. In Europe, the Port of Rotterdam processed the most containers in 2020, some 8.4 million.

* The abbreviation TEU stands for the twenty-foot equivalent unit, a standard unit of measure in the shipping industry.

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Statistics on the topic
Container shipping worldwide

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Key figures

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Global container fleet

Ports

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