World Container Throughput, 1980-2021

World Container Throughput, 1980-2021

Source: adapted from Drewry Shipping Consultants and own elaboration.

Until 2008, container throughput (container handled at ports, including the port of origin, destination, and transshipment) had an average annual compound growth of 10.5%. This surge is linked to 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. Container throughput growth 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 (-8.5%) between 2008 and 2009. This was the first time that container volumes at the global level declined. Throughput growth resumed afterward, but at a lower level to reach 811 million TEUs in 2019. Then in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated economic downturn resulted in the second time container throughput declined (-1.5%)

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 following commercial opportunities.
  • Growth (1990-2008). Containerization began to seriously impact global trade patterns and manufacturing strategies, particularly with the entry of China into 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 (2008-2019). The maturation of container traffic is linked with the maturation of the global economy, which became apparent during this period with peak growth rates. This involves a number of factors, such as limits to 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 in containerized traffic. Still, the maturity of containerization is more an economic than a technical process.
  • Peak containerization (2020-). The Covid-19 pandemic represented a paradigm shift in global trade with substantial disruptions in supply chains. After a small decline in 2020, volumes recovered in 2021 (+6.3%), partly due to deferred demand, changes in consumption patterns, and significant government stimulus. It remains uncertain what throughput levels peak containerization would involve.