Port of Vancouver sends record number of empty shipping containers to Asia


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Shipping containers stacked at the Port of Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak / The Globe and Mail

Port of Vancouver sends record number of empty shipping containers to Asia, underscoring the chaotic effects of a recent recovery in global trade volumes.

Usually, shipping companies try to maximize the efficiency of freight transportation by keeping reusable steel containers full in both directions of a journey. When a ship unloads a shipping container of imported goods from Asia, the box is ideally filled with Canadian export goods before making its return trip to Asia.

But, in the first eight months of this year, the volume of empty shipping containers leaving the Port of Vancouver has skyrocketed from the same period last year.

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The reason so many shipping containers return to Asia filled with air only has to do with increased consumer demand for Asian products, as Canadians resume spending after an early lull in the pandemic. Rather than wait for containers to be loaded with Canadian goods, shipping companies pay to be sent to Asia empty, so they can be filled faster for the return trip to Canada, said Robin Silvester, CEO of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

The pursuit of rare metal cans by Asian shippers has made it more difficult for Canadian-based exporters to get their hands on containers.

“It’s a symptom of supply chain congestion,” Mr. Silvester said. “When you see the supply chain increases that we’re seeing right now, the shipping companies just want to bring these boxes back to Asia. “

Container trade is tracked by an industry measure called TEU (20ft Shipping Container Equivalent Units). There were 597,443 TEUs of empty containers exported from Vancouver in the first eight months of this year, up 89% from the same period in 2020. And 2020 was previously the record year for empty container shipments from the port.

Almost half of all the containers that have left Vancouver so far this year are empty.

In total, the Port of Vancouver handled 2.55 million TEUs of imports and exports in the first eight months of 2021, up 17% from the same period in 2020.

China is the Port of Vancouver’s largest shipper of containerized cargo, including consumer goods. And China is also Canada’s largest customer for exports of wheat and special crops, which are mostly shipped in bulk. inside ship hulls, but can also be sent inside containers.

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The problems with container logistics are not limited to Canada. Port congestion is worsening around the world as the global supply chain responds to increased trade after the lows induced by the 2020 pandemic.

“Carriers prefer to reposition empty boxes rather than loaded boxes to reduce turnaround time,” DHL Global Forwarding said in a recent presentation to its customers.

Expanding Vancouver’s port capacity may provide some relief, but efforts to do so are still a long way from producing results in months or years.

Dubai-based DP World PLC, which operates the Centerm terminal at Burrard Inlet along the Vancouver waterfront, plans to add 600,000 TEUs of annual capacity, for a total of 1.5 million TEUs by mid-2022. Construction of the expansion, which is expected to cost $ 454 million, is expected to be 90 percent complete by the end of the year.

Silvester hopes the federal cabinet will vote by the end of March on the Port of Vancouver’s plans for a new $ 3.5 billion container terminal located near Delta, B.C., about 30 kilometers away. south of Vancouver.

The port is touting the project, called Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (RBT2), as a crucial expansion of shipping container capacity on the west coast to meet an expected increase in trans-Pacific traffic, including imports of consumer goods from ‘Asia.

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RBT2 would require the construction of an artificial island near a coal export terminal and an existing shipping container site. “The reason we’re pushing RBT2 forward is that we’ve done extensive analysis and done a tremendous amount of environmental work over the past 10 years. And that continues, based on all of this work, in our opinion, to be the best opportunity to build critical capacity for Canada, ”said Mr. Silvester.

Even with Centerm’s expansion underway, Port of Vancouver administrators are concerned that Canada’s west coast will run out of space to handle additional container shipments as early as 2025. “It’s actually a little scary because we can’t build capacity that quickly, ”said Mr. Silvester. “So that just underscores the importance of getting [RBT2] to go ahead and build that capacity. Otherwise, Canada is running out of container capacity, and that’s a problem for all of us.

RBT2, however, faces opposition from one of the port’s own tenants, GCT Global Container Terminals Inc., which operates an existing shipping container site near Delta.

While the port’s hope is to open RBT2 in 2030, GCT argued that its Deltaport 4 expansion project, which would add a fourth berth to its own facility, is a much better solution to providing additional long-term container capacity.

GCT has forecast a total cost of $ 1.6 billion to add two million TEUs of annual container capacity to its facility. RBT2 would add 2.4 million TEUs for more than double the estimated price.

GCT’s proposal is currently under review by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada and the British Columbia Office of Environmental Assessment.

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The Port of Vancouver owns the container terminals at DP World’s Fraser Surrey Docks and GCT’s Vanterm facility. In Prince Rupert, DP World operates the Fairview container site.

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