Transportation & Logistics Analysis

Will low value cargo return to conventional ships?

June 09 2021

Some low added value goods have been able to switch to container ships in recent years, thanks to low freight rates. Soaring transport prices in 2020 have changed the situation, however.

So-called "poor" merchandise, which is to say goods of low value per cubic metre or tonne, were late coming to containerisation and did so only progressively. Shippers were attracted by very low container freight rates over the long term. The switch was made possible by the creation of dedicated logistics chains, often using containers as "moving stock" and allowing shippers and their customers to make the best possible use of storage space.

This development, which has taken place over the last 20 years, has led to technical adjustments in the form of "dry" bulk containers with slide rails and "liners" for classical dry containers. These liners, which cover container interiors completely, are particularly well suited to grain, malt and cereals. On the other hand, powdered milk, a key European export to China which is packed in sacks in containers which cannot always take pallets, is a real headache, since it is very sensitive to humidity. The least bad solution is to send the containers by train so as to ensure that they are transported safely and limit transport time and the risk of a deterioration in quality which comes with it.

At the same time, the transportation of low added value goods by container is under threat from soaring freight rates. Here, we will consider which kinds of goods are most likely to take the return path from container to conventional shipping.

1/ Timber, wood pulp, old paper and compressed cardboard for recycling

This market segment was one of the last to switch to containerisation and looks likely to be one of the first to switch back to conventional shipping. This is already happening for the transportation of timber even though specialised lumber ships have become hard to find on the charter market.

2/ Grain and cereals

The American agri-food sector is currently finding it very difficult to export, mainly because there are not enough available containers. Their goods, which are either shipped as bulk in containers or in sacks, are quite powdery. This means that the containers which transport them have to cleaned with a blow gun before they can be filled again with high value finished products from China on shrink-wrapped palettes. Current freight rates do not encourage the shipping companies to do this. That said, the switch back to bulk transport has turned out to be difficult for loads of less than 500 tonnes. Small cereals ship for sharing are hard to find, as are lumber carriers, since a significant proportion of cargo in this category has already been containerised.

3/ Base chemicals and raw materials

In the chemicals segment, one part of the market is particularly important - PVC granules conditioned and sold in one-tonne Big Bags. This product, which is the raw material for the entire plastics industry, moves about the world a great deal on the basis of market prices but offers very low margins. The use of Big Bags should help it to make the switch back to conventional transport but the supply chain for this product will need to be recreated and, with it, storage conditions and pre- and post-routing.

As regards raw materials, a product like chalk, which is a basic ingredient for the paint industry, also has a value per tonne which is too low to bear the current cost of container transport. Here again, however, the switch to conventional shipping means rethinking the supply chain.

4/ Plastic and metal waste

These products risk becoming impossible to transport at all! Already, with metal waste, there are an increasing number of false declarations regarding depollution. This waste, which is stuffed into containers as is, creates a real problem for container owners because it causes scratches, damages container walls and causes leaks in their wooden floors. Now that the container shipping companies can be more selective about the freight they load in their containers, they can be expected to increasingly pass over this category of products.

The problem is a complex one, since "dirty" transport is part of the circular recycling economic model and is needed to feed industries which are out of the mainstream but often provide employment for a great deal of casual labour in India and Africa. Ending this form of transport at a stroke would have serious social consequences for certain communities.

Possible technical solutions

Buyers and sellers of low value merchandise will have no choice but to move back to conventional shipping if current container freight rates stay at high levels in the long term. They will either have to charter small bulkers or take space on them.

This market is still active in the Mediterranean but will need to be reinvented in the deep-sea shipping sector. The one-tonne Big Bag is one alternative to the container even if it means that goods are less well protected. The use of 50 kg sacks on palettes would, however, be a return to conditions pertaining in the 1950s and 1960s, whereas geared ships are hard to find on today's market. This is not a very credible option, therefore.

The use of road trailers and ro-ro ships for deep sea transport could also be envisaged. Operators like ACL and Grimaldi already have strong positions on this market and can offer pertinent solutions for cargoes up to 500 tonnes, which do not represent enough volume to allow for the chartering of space on conventional vessels. Rates needs to be studied case by case, taking account of gains in detention and demurrage charges by comparison with container transport. A major problem, however, is trailer returns. If trailers are sent back empty, they risk making operations unprofitable. 

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Expert in Ocean shipping for 25 years, Jerome puts all his knowledge of the industry to contribution for Upply. Ship captain at heart, he has written the English-French Lexicon of Containerized Shipping (Paris: CELSE, 2001).