World Container Throughput, 1980-2017 (millions of TEU)

World Container Throughput, 1980-2017 (millions of TEU)

Source: adapted from Drewry Shipping Consultants and own elaboration.

Up to 2008, the growth of the world container traffic (the number of containers being carried) was a continuous process with an average annual compound growth of 9.5%. During the same period, container throughput (container handled at ports, which includes the port of origin, destination, and transshipment) had an average annual compound growth of 10.5%. This underlines a divergence between container throughput and traffic as global supply chains become more complex.

The surge of container throughput is linked with several factors, such as the growth of international trade in addition to the adoption of containerization as a privileged vector for maritime shipping and inland transportation. Until 2008 the growth of container throughput behaved according to the standard technological diffusion (or product life cycle) curve, which is “S” shaped. However, the financial crisis of 2009-2010 had a significant impact on container flows, which experienced a drop of 49 million TEUs (9.3%) between 2008 and 2009. This was the first time that container volumes at the global level declined. Growth of throughput resumed afterward, but at a lower level to reach 750 million TEUs in 2017. With this in mind, the following development stages can be suggested and inferred:

  • Introduction (1958-1970). From the first containerized commercial services in the late 1950s until the design of the first cellular containerships in the 1960s, the container was an unknown variable in global shipping. Investments were sparse as high risk was involved with unproven technology.
  • Adoption (1970-1990). The container became acknowledged as a transport product, and investments in intermodal facilities accelerated. This involved the construction and reconversion of several container port terminals as well as the introduction of cellular containerships. The risk factor became less of an issue, and investments were made in accordance with commercial opportunities.
  • Growth (1990-2008). Containerization began to seriously impact global trade patterns and manufacturing strategies, particularly with the entry of China in the global economy. The emergence of new manufacturing clusters incited long-distance (transatlantic and transpacific) pendulum container services. During the same period, a new class of Post Panamax containerships became a dominant vector of maritime shipping. Additionally, containerization started to go further inland with rail and barge services.
  • Maturity (2008-). The maturation of container traffic will be linked with the maturation of the global economy. This can involve a number of factors, such as limits to the exploitation of comparative advantages in manufacturing as well as the associated trade imbalances and fluctuating energy prices. Technical limits to economies of scale both from the maritime and land sides of containerization are also likely to play significantly for containerized traffic, but the maturity of containerization is likely to be more an economic than a technical process. The global recession that began in 2008 was associated with a significant reduction in containerized traffic. Volumes recovered afterward, and it remains uncertain what throughput levels ‘peak containerization’ would involve.