Globalization owes a lot to the humble shipping container.

Image: Containerisation International, Port of Los Angeles, TheGlobalEconomy.com, International Organisation for Standardisation.

In the distant past, loading a ship was a complicated affair involving pallets, crates, and winches. This process was labor-intensive and expensive, meaning most goods were simply not worth shipping overseas.

Image: Containerisation International, Port of Los Angeles, TheGlobalEconomy.com, International Organisation for Standardisation.

In the 1970s, the standardized shipping container solved this problem on a wide scale and turned the world economy on its head. This standardization drove the cost of shipping down as the efficiency of ports skyrocketed. Modern ports can now move upwards of 70 containers per crane per hour.

It doesn’t matter anymore where you produce something now, because transport costs aren’t important.

— Rainer Horn, Hapag-Lloyd

MADE IN CHINA

Image: Containerisation International, Port of Los Angeles, TheGlobalEconomy.com, International Organisation for Standardisation.

With the barrier of shipping costs effectively removed, production began to migrate to countries with cheaper production costs.

China is at the center of this new paradigm: nearly one-third of all global containers move through Chinese ports, and seven of the top 10 ports in the world are all located in China.

COUNTRIES MOVING THE MOST UNITS

Here are the top 10 countries with the most 20-foot containers passing through their ports:

China leads the way with close to a 1/4 billion containers passing through their ports annually.
Image: Visual Capitalist

Asian countries dominate shipping container traffic, taking up four of the top five spots. Singapore, with a population of just 5.4 million, moved nearly 34 million 20-foot containers in 2017. That’s more than Italy, France, Russia, Sweden, and the U.K. combined.

The United States is still the number two country in the world in terms of the number of containers handled. Two massive ports in Los Angeles control over a quarter of the North American market share, and the Port of New York & New Jersey is the largest on the Eastern Seaboard.

Image: Containerisation International, Port of Los Angeles, TheGlobalEconomy.com, International Organisation for Standardisation.

THE STACK KEEPS GROWING

Except for a brief slip in 2009, the number of containers moving through ports has increased every year this millennium so far.

In spite of the recent volley of tariff actions, there appears to be smooth sailing ahead for the growth of containerized shipping.