Source: Population and GDP from World Bank, World Development Indicators. Exports from World Trade Organization. Container port throughput compiled from Containerization International.
Containerization has been the most dynamic physical component of globalization, far exceeding the growth of the value of exports and the GDP. As globalization developed, each new individual, GDP, or export unit was associated with a higher level of container flows. Between 1980 and 2020, global container throughput increased by a factor of 20 times, while exports and GDP increased by a factor of 8.9 and 7.5 times respectively. While up to 1980, the growth of container port throughput went on par with the growth of the value of exports, a divergence is noted afterward. Containerization entered the acceleration phase of its diffusion cycle as the fundamental support of export-oriented strategies pursued by Asian economies.
Therefore, an array of growth factors is at play to explain the substantial growth of containerization, and more interestingly, the contribution of these factors in time varies. While additional traffic resulting from organic growth is the most salient factor, imbalanced trade flows (empty containers) and the configuration of shipping networks relying on transshipment hubs (double counting) have also contributed to additional containerized flows and port handlings. As economies of scale are applied to maritime shipping, transshipment becomes more salient. The number of transshipped containers increased from around 11% of all cargo handled by container ports in 1980 to about 30% in 2015, which is also a notable factor in the growth of containerized traffic.