Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Plastic boxes save energy

This is not a bad idea except for the fact that it does take oil to manufacture them.

"Flat pack"

A more environmentally friendly way to transport goods

December 30th, 2009

OVERHAULING an industry of which you know little is not easy, but neither is it impossible. In 1956 Malcom McLean, a trucker from North Carolina, launched the first “intermodal” shipping container, which could be transferred easily between lorries, trains and ships. It revolutionised the transport of goods by abolishing the traditional (and back-breaking) system of “break bulk” loading, and thus helped oil the wheels of globalisation. Now another outsider to the shipping industry is trying to get a similar change under way.

Rene Giesbers, a heating-systems engineer from the Netherlands, has invented a collapsible plastic shipping container which, he hopes, will replace McLean’s steel design. Because it is made of a fibreglass composite, it weighs only three-quarters as much as a standard container but—more importantly— when it is empty, it can be folded down to a quarter of its size. The composite is more resistant to corrosion than the steel it replaces, is easier to clean and floats. It is also greener to manufacture. Making one of Mr Giesbers’s containers results in just a quarter of the carbon dioxide that would be generated by the manufacture of its steel counterpart.

A collapsible shipping container would be useful for several reasons. Patterns of trade mean that more goods travel from China to America, for example, than the other way around, so ships, trains and lorries inevitably carry some empty containers. If these were folded, there would be more room for full containers and some vessels would be liberated to ply different routes. If collapsed containers were bundled together in groups of four, ships could be loaded far more quickly, cutting the time spent in ports. They would also take up less space on land, allowing depots to operate more efficiently.

Mr Giesbers is not the first to invent a collapsible container. Several models were experimented with in the early 1990s but failed to catch on, mainly because of the extra work involved in folding and unfolding them. There were also concerns about their strength. Mr Giesbers says the Cargoshell, as he has dubbed his version, can be collapsed or opened in 30 seconds by a single person using a forklift truck, and that it is now undergoing tests to see whether it is strong enough to meet the requirements set by the International Organisation for Standardisation.

There are currently about 26m containers in the world, and the volume of goods they carry has risen from 13.5m “twenty-foot equivalent units” in 1980 to almost 140m today. It is expected to reach 180m by 2015. Mr Giesbers aims to have a million Cargoshells plying the seas, rails and roads by 2020, equivalent to 4% of the market.

Bart Kuipers, a harbour economist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, thinks that is a little ambitious, but he reckons the crate could win 2-3% of the market. He thinks it is the container’s lower weight, rather than its collapsibility, that makes it attractive. It will appeal to companies worried about their carbon footprints—and if oil prices rise, that appeal will widen.

Ultimately, the main obstacle to the introduction of the Cargoshell may be institutional rather than technical. As Edgar Blanco, a logistics expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out, “Everyone is vested in the current system. Introducing a disruptive technology requires a major player to take a huge risk in adopting it. So the question will always boil down to: who pays for the extra cost, and takes the initial risk?”

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