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How Many Steel Shipping Containers Exist Worldwide?

Shipping Containers are now so ubiquitous around the world that we seldom even notice their presence. They simply merge into the background, despite their considerable bulk. Sometimes we don’t even realise we’re actually inside a Conex box when we visit offices, stores or even restaurants. So, how many shipping containers exist? That’s a tough question to answer.

Shipping Container Numbers So Hard to Define

With estimates ranging from as low as 5 million to as high as 170 million, it’s clear that shipping container records are sketchy at best. One of the main problems is that the industry lacks an international governing body to count and license every single box built.  With the intermodal, steel shipping container industry dating back nearly 60 years, it’s impossible to guess how many boxes are rusting away on farms, in parking lots or on industrial sites across all continents.

China the Shipping Container Industry’s Biggest Player

China alone has an estimated annual manufacturing capacity of almost 6 million TEU’s (20-foot equivalent units), which accounts for an impressive 96% of the world’s container production capacity. There are roughly 900 different sizes and types of shipping container manufactured in China, with the majority exported worldwide. Many of these are ISO-compliant, meaning they adhere to international standards, but other cheaper versions are not. If the Chinese government knows exactly how many Corten steel boxes are produced each year, they’re certainly not sharing the information.

China Line Shipping container vesselCommercial Fleets Don’t Publish the Number of Containers They Own

The principal owners of shipping container fleets, such as Maersk Line, which has around 600 specialist container vessels, Mediterranean Shipping Company with over 400, and CMA CGM with a similar number, only release their TEU capacity. This makes estimating the precise number of shipping containers a real shot in the dark, due to the various standard and non-standard (10-foot and 30-foot, for example) models available.  The problem is compounded by the fact that operators are notoriously cagey about publishing statistics that might compare them unfavourably with their industry competitors.

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Factoring in the Leasing Companies

Leasing companies, such as the world’s largest, Triton International, also operate intermodal shipping container fleets. Triton’s 4.8 million TEU capacity dominates the industry with approximately 25% of the leasing market. If you do the maths, this suggests the global leasing market alone contains over 13 million shipping containers, which immediately blows that original estimate of 5 million containers being in existence right out of the water!

In- Service and Ex-Service Shipping Containers

Industry experts have estimated that there are 25 million steel shipping containers currently in active service around the world and 15 million decommissioned or ex-service. The latter group includes Conex boxes that have been repurposed into all manner of roles – cafes, bars, boutiques, site offices, emergency accommodation, medical centres, container shelters, workshops, storage rooms and even multi-storey hotels.

In Conclusion

The fact that the industry is in a continual state of flux, with steel shipping containers constantly being manufactured, decommissioned and scrapped, means that it’s impossible to come up with a total number in existence. Add to that the reticence of fleet operators to release statistics regarding how many refrigerated, high cube, flat rack, open top and other types of containers they own, and you come up against an insurmountable brick wall.