Year closes with container shortage continuing

ISRI says new shipping company procedure is the focus of an investigation.

ocean shipping containers
A federal commission has opened an investigation into lack of access to shipping containers for U.S. exporters.
Photo provided by Dreamstime.

The Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) says its member companies are among exporting firms “reporting extreme difficulties obtaining ocean shipping containers from ocean carriers over the last several months.”

According to ISRI and to media reports, the lack of containers is being caused in part by ocean carriers immediately returning empty shipping containers, predominantly to China and Southeast Asia, before exporters in the U.S. have the chance to use them.

For North American exporters of scrap commodities, the shortages have been apparent for some time. Earlier in December, the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) stated that “U.S. recyclers looking to move material are being confronted by a lack of truck drivers and containers.”

Around that same time, a recycler on the U.S. West Coast indicated to Recycling Today that containers and shipping space were difficult to procure. “Even though you have a booking, at the last minute it can get rolled,” remarked Steve Frank, president and CEO of Tacoma, Washington-based Pioneer Recycling Services. “It is very challenging in the Northwest. I’m hearing about this all over in our area.”

In the scrap metals sector, Nathan Fruchter of Lawrence, New York-based Idoru Trading told Recycling Today in late November that container and booking shortages are a factor in several U.S. and Canadian port regions on both the East and West Coasts.

In a Dec. 20 article, the Cyprus-based Hellenic Shipping News has reported the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) has made the World Shipping Council (WSC) aware that it is initiating an investigation into why containers are being shipped back to Asia empty before American exporters have the chance to use them.

A letter from the FMC commissioners to the WSC reads in part, “We want to stress the point that in responding to import cargo challenges, ocean carriers should not lose sight of their common carriage obligations to provide service to U.S. exporters,” according to the Hellenic Shipping News.

An article posted about a week earlier to the shipping publication’s website pointed to the rebounding economy in China and the demand for containers from exporters there as a strain on container supply. “China’s world-beating economic rebound from the coronavirus pandemic is being blunted by a global shortage of shipping containers, sending cargo costs to record highs and hampering manufacturers in filling fast-recovering global goods orders,” wrote the publication.

Other contributing factors cited in that article were COVID-19-related handling capacity cuts in Europe and the United States—which added to container turnaround times—and cutbacks in global air freight capacity, which has spurred additional demand for sea freight.

In its Dec. 19 email to members, ISRI says the FMC investigation, known as Fact Finding 29, is focusing on container handling practices at ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York and New Jersey. The association says its members can contribute to the investigation by making a complaint via the FMC website

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