Freight Waves: Giant container ships are ruining everything

May 19, 2022 Media

I hate big boats, and so should you.

In 2006, Maersk stunned the global shipping community with the introduction of Emma Maersk, a container ship that could carry nearly 15,000 twenty-foot equivalent units. (TEUs translate to about half of a standard forty-foot shipping container.)

Emma Maersk set off an “arms race” with its introduction. Ocean carriers ordered bigger and bigger ships, believing that they could reach economies of scale if they could jam all their shipments into one big boat instead of a few small ones.

Today, we’ve appeared to reach peak Big Boat Era. The Emma Maersk is now wimpy next to 2022’s true megaships. The largest container ships to be delivered this year have a maximum capacity of 24,000 TEUs. (This class of ship is named — I am not making this up — the “Ever Alot.” The Evergreen shipping company, the very same that blocked the Suez Canal last year, ordered the record-breaking ship.)

Each year brings a new, larger-than-ever megaship. The largest ship class of a given year has increased by 50% from 2012 to today, or nearly sixfold from 1981 to today.

Massive container ships have helped wreak serious chaos on global trade. I spoke with four experts this week to learn how megaships are the sneaky reason for much of our ongoing shipping crisis.

2. They cause port congestion.

The more obvious reason that big ships are helping cause our ongoing supply chain chaos is that they’re literally too big to fit into most ports. Even the Suez Canal struggled to accommodate one of these megaships, causing the crucial global conduit to be clogged for days last year.

Matt Stoller, who is the director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, told FreightWaves these megaships are great for moving lots of cargo across oceans. The problem is once you get to your destination. Ocean carriers (and the financial institutions that bankroll them) aren’t paying for updated ports, increased dredging, new warehouses, highways and so on to accommodate these ships. That cost is getting off-loaded to the public, Stoller said.

Indeed, as Mercogliano pointed out, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spent a whopping $1.7 billion to raise its Bayonne Bridge to accommodate the shipping scions’ new megaships — a cost that was paid by taxpayers, not ocean carriers or shippers.

One complex is remarkably adept at accommodating those ships: the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. As a result, it claims 40% of all U.S. seaborne imports. Before the U.S. saw historic imports in 2020 and onward, this system worked well enough. But over the past year, it’s been remarkably backed up, causing unprecedented supply chain crunches as importers struggled to offload their containers and load empty ones back on to make the trip back to Asia.

If these ships were not so giant, we likely wouldn’t see this kind of congestion. Ocean carriers could bring their normal-sized ships to other ports around the U.S. Stoller pushed for more competition among ocean carriers, which would perhaps mean more diverse types of ships.

“We have a lot of ports in this country but we don’t have enough ocean carrier firms,” Stoller said. “The ocean carrier firms’ boats are too big for most ports.”