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Understanding Cargo Containers
A shipping container is a sealable unit with strength suitable to withstand shipment, storage, and handling. Shipping containers range from large reusable steel boxes used for intermodal shipments to the ubiquitous corrugated boxes. In the context of international shipping trade, "container" or "shipping container" is virtually synonymous with "(standard) intermodal freight container" (a container designed to be moved from one mode of transport to another unloading and reloading).
Where Do Our Shipping Containers Come From?
An intermodal container is a large standardized shipping container, designed and built for intermodal freight transport, meaning these containers can be used across different modes of transport – from ship to rail to truck – without unloading and reloading their cargo. Intermodal containers are primarily used to store and transport materials and products efficiently and securely in the global containerized intermodal freight transport system, but smaller numbers are in regional use as well. These containers are known under a number of names, such as simply container, cargo or freight container, ISO container, shipping, sea or ocean container, container van or (Conex) box, sea or "c" can.
Intermodal containers exist in many types and a number of standardized sizes, but ninety percent of the global container fleet are so-called "dry freight" or "general purpose" containers, durable closed steel boxes, mostly of either twenty or forty foot (6 or 12m) standard length. The common heights are 8 feet 6 inches (2.6 m) and 9 feet 6 inches (2.9 m) – the latter are known as High Cube or Hi-Cube containers.
Just like cardboard boxes and pallets, these containers are a means to bundle cargo and goods into larger, unitized loads, that can be easily handled, moved, and stacked, and that will pack tightly in a ship or yard. Intermodal containers share a number of key construction features to withstand the stresses of intermodal shipping, to facilitate their handling and to allow stacking, as well as being identifiable through their individual, unique ISO 6346 reporting mark.
In 2012 there were about 20.5 million intermodal containers in the world of varying types to suit different cargoes. Containers have largely supplanted the traditional break bulk cargo – in 2010 containers accounted for 60% of the world's seaborne trade. The predominant alternative methods of transport carry bulk cargo – either gaseous, liquid or solid – e.g. by bulk carrier or tank ship, tank car or truck. For air freight, the more light-weight IATA-defined unit load device is used.
From the ships they are carried by a large crane designed to easily remove all the containers, and place them on a truck for delivery, or they are stored in large container lots.
After several years of use they begin to succumb to the elements. Salt is sea water is particularly corrosive, and weather at sea can be severe. After a certain amount of time they may start to leak or show signs of wear. Because it is possible for shipping containers to collapse during transport, containers are inspected often and retired after so many years.