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Can shipping containers help circular economy?

The shipping containers carry shipments all across the globe. They have been useful tools for manufacturing companies. A shipping container is considered an “intermodal freight container“, i.e., it can be moved from one mode of transport to another- it can be loaded on ships, on trains, and on trucks thereby allowing goods transport via water, rail and road. They are sturdy, reusable and can carry about 27,600 kg. They can serve for a life span of 15-20 years, although the average container will spend more than half its life sitting empty and unused. They often don’t return to their place of origin as it gets expensive to send them back. They end up piling up on ports or even construction sites. This is another example of the malfunction of international capitalism. They can be melted down but that requires over 8000kWh energy for each container! So, mostly they end up getting rusted or are left in landfills.

The current materials and techniques in the construction industry have proven to be harmful to the planet. This industry is responsible for about 40% of carbon emissions every year. A large amount of energy is consumed in the manufacturing of materials, transporting them to the site and from the construction on site. The current trends contribute a lot of waste to the landfills as well. It has become necessary to shift to sustainable alternatives. We need to employ eco-friendly materials, energy-efficient methods of construction, and reuse old built structures. Upcycling shipping containers could help to reduce waste and carbon emissions.

How shipping containers came into existence?

Malcolm McLean developed shipping containers in the 1950s. The US government used them to ship supplies to troops overseas during the Vietnam War. The troops also used them as emergency shelters. In the 1960s, English historian Reyner Banham wrote an essay about how shipping containers could be modular units for creating a ‘plug and play’ city. The modularity can be compared to using Lego or Jenga as building blocks. In 1987, Philip Clark became the first person to apply for a US patent for converting containers into habitable spaces. Thus, started the popular trend of “cargotecture“. In 2004, this term was coined by the Hybrid Practice from Seattle.

Why should we upcycle shipping containers?

ISO shipping containers are now used as a structural element in various buildings around the world. The reason for this widespread usage can be attributed to their robust features. They are waterproof, fireproof, and even survive in strong wind conditions. They are modular hence flexible to work with. The modular construction allows adding more sections to increase the space later. There are ample design possibilities. They are compact and occupy less space. It is possible to do construction off-site and assemble everything quickly on site. Little excavation or groundwork is required. The amount of materials and heavy machinery required on site is reduced. This helps to reduce the budget of the project by 20-25% if planning is done properly.

What are the drawbacks?

There can be some drawbacks while working with shipping containers. The most serious problem linked to the containers is toxic chemicals. The containers are usually coated with lead or chromate-based chemicals. These chemicals could leak into the floors and cause damage to human health. So, it is crucial to buy containers from trusted sources only. Shipping containers are not suitable for extreme cold or hot weather. It is because steel is a good conductor of heat. Insulation becomes absolutely necessary in such climate zones. That can be an expensive affair. It is difficult to find workers who know how to work with containers. A crane is generally employed to place the container on site. So, the road around the site should allow a crane to come through.

How to upcycle shipping containers?

Shipping containers are available in standard sizes of 8 feet(2.44m) width and 8 feet 6 inches (2.59m) height. The height of the containers does cause issues in some cases. The length can either be 20 feet (6.06m) or 40 feet (12.2m). The container can be dark and dingy inside. It requires a good amount of work to make them comfortable for living. The steel is cut on the sides for doors and windows. Reinforcement needs to be provided in places. Large openings should be avoided as they can compromise the strength of the container. Insulation, plumbing, and electrical outlets are added after fitting in doors and windows. Insulation takes up about 6 inches of thickness from all sides. Some people prefer insulation on the outer surface of the containers for this reason. It can hide the famous industrial look of the steel containers, which some don’t prefer. A roof garden can also be added to provide insulation.

Cargotecture has presented innovative ideas for upcycling containers. Containers have been transformed into pop-up stores, retail markets, cafes, libraries, exhibition spaces, and even workshops. Some firms have tried to create trendy hotels, offices, and studio spaces with the use of shipping containers. They can be used for temporary events and exhibits. A repurposed container could also be easily moved to another location. This way the owner gets the freedom to take his business or event on the go. Such projects can be at the forefront of urban renewal. Many people in the West are inspired by the ‘Tiny House’ movement and use shipping containers for off-grid living. Shipping containers have played a noble role in providing affordable low-cost housing and student accommodation. A great application of cargotecture would be in case of providing immediate shelter in case of natural disasters and refugee camps. They can also be used as temporary sets in the film industry.

Urban Rigger

Urban Rigger, Denmark ©

The Bjarke Ingels Group has created a very unique community of floating student housing. The Urban Rigger project is located in Denmark. There are 12 apartments, each of the size between 23 m sq. and 30 m sq. The containers are placed in a triangular plan with a courtyard formed in between which serves as a big living room. They have also provided a new function to the waterfronts in the city through this project.

The Container Farming Solution

Freight Farms ©

Freight Farms and Square Roots are two companies that have given a new purpose to refurbished shipping containers. The containers are designed with climate-controlled hydroponic vertical farms. These units can be located anywhere and provide fresh produce throughout the year. The companies provide skills, the necessary software, and hardware to grow their own leafy greens. In 2015, this revolutionary practice was listed among the World Economic Forum’s Top 10 Urban Innovations.


ZubaBox by Squire and Partners in Bogota, Columbia ©

Zubabox is a shipping container converted into a solar-powered internet café developed by Computer Aid International. The first ZubaBox was employed in Zambia to be used by Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. Solar power allows communities to use computers and the internet in areas that lack electricity. The batteries save enough energy for 10 hours of consecutive usage each day by 11 concurrent users. These boxes also function as classrooms- especially in refugee areas.

Tallassee System

The Tallassee System ©

The Tallassee System is a complex 5-Story live fire training building. The building setup allows multiple facets of training and rescue scenarios. 

Hotels and Retail Stores

Beach Box Hotel, Goa ©

The Beach Box Hotel on Baga Beach is made of repurposed shipping containers. The property has about 70% of upcycled materials. They have 16 rooms and a swimming pool which is also made from a shipping container. The architects behind this endeavor are AOL employees, Gappan Annamalai and Bikram. Studio Alternative, based in Pune India, designed a Dominos outlet at Mandwa Jetty in Maharashtra. They used two 20 feet containers to add to an existing mall also called ‘Beach Box’ at the Jetty. Their other projects include homes, classrooms, a childcare center, a mobile machine display unit, and a vocational training center.


CURA, Turin, Italy © Max Tomasinelli

Recently, shipping containers were converted into ICUs during the COVID- 19 pandemic. An Italian company, Carlo Ratti Associati and the MIT Senseable City Lab teamed up to create the Connected Units for Respiratory Ailments, or CURA. These ICUs are quick to set up and provide “biocontainment”. The shipping containers can be taken anywhere and are being used to tackle the spread of COVID- 19 in Africa. The containers can create a  negative room pressure system. This will further help in preventing the virus from spreading. Similar ICUs were also setup in Maharashtra and other Indian states.


If a new shipping container is used for construction, then the idea is lost. Cargotecture was started as a means to reduce waste and not just as a style of architecture. It is also advisable to only pick containers if they are easily available. Transporting containers from a port city to deep inland might again not do justice to its intended purpose. Container architecture makes more sense in coastal cities. It is also possible to find used containers away from the coasts as well because they tend to be transported everywhere. Modularity being the main feature, it is more reasonable to go for smaller structures. For bigger structures, one might end up making many changes to the shipping container. Again, the purpose would be lost. Like everything else, they have their own place and usage.

Shipping containers have proven to provide amazing solutions for urban issues. They have a lot of potential in leading to a circular economy. In that process, they have revolutionized the field of architecture. It is important for the people to be better consumers. Consumers need to be more aware of what materials is being put into their houses. They can ask the designers for sustainable options and get involved in the design processes themselves. Starting with simple steps as re-using and upcycling anything in homes is better than not doing anything!


One thought on “Can shipping containers help circular economy?

  1. Containers are a great reusable resource and have so many interesting applications as pointed out in this article, awesome pictures and lots of informative details to inspire.


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