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Shipping containers stacked at the Port of Vancouver as construction work is underway on the expansion of DP World's Centerm container terminal, in Vancouver, on March 1, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The Port of Vancouver handled a record number of containers last year and warns that unless it expands shipping capacity, serious disruptions will become more frequent and widespread throughout Canada’s supply chains.

“It matters to every Canadian, anyone who’s buying anything in a store that has been manufactured in Asia,” Robin Silvester, the port’s chief executive officer, said in an interview on Thursday.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority is touting its plans for a new $3.5-billion container terminal to be located near Delta, B.C., about 30 kilometres south of Vancouver. The project, called Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (RBT2), would be a crucial expansion of container capacity on the West Coast, Mr. Silvester said.

The shipping industry deploys large vessels to carry containers, which are reusable steel boxes. Container trade is tracked through an industry measurement called TEUs (20-foot equivalent units).

Nearly 3.7 million TEUs of exports and imports went through the Port of Vancouver in 2021, up 6 per cent compared with 2020. It marks the fifth consecutive year that a new annual record has been set for container traffic at Canada’s largest port.

But it was also a record year for empty containers, underscoring the bumpy recovery in global trade during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides continuing disruptions to the supply chain overseas, extreme weather in British Columbia last fall exacerbated a bottleneck of cargo ships, holding up consumer goods arriving from Asia and delaying exports from Canada’s West Coast.

The pursuit of the scarce metal boxes around the world has had a ripple effect, making it more difficult for exporters based in Canada to get their hands on them.

Rather than waiting for containers to be loaded with Canadian goods, shipping companies have been paying for them to be sent to Asia empty, so that they can be filled faster for the trip back to Canada.

There were 876,905 TEUs of empty containers exported from Canada’s largest port last year, up 56 per cent from 2020. For every full container exported from the port last year, one was sent back empty.

In sharp contrast, the vast majority of the more than 1.9 million TEUs of imported containers were filled with goods, with only 14,604 TEUs of empties.

In total, the Port of Vancouver saw an improvement in overall cargo volumes of 1 per cent to 146.5 million tonnes last year – just shy of the record 147 million tonnes posted in 2018.

Problems in the supply chain are part of what has been driving inflation, Mr. Silvester said. “If we don’t move Terminal 2 forward, we’re creating our own problem that’s going to contribute to inflation when we run out of capacity in the next five years.”

The port authority believes that the three-berth RBT2, to be completed by 2030, would be necessary to meet an anticipated increase in transpacific traffic, noting that congestion on the West Coast affects consumers across the country.

A decision on RBT2 by the federal cabinet is expected to be made by this fall.

RBT2, however, is facing opposition from one of the port’s own tenants, GCT Global Container Terminals Inc., which runs its three-berth container site near Delta.

Under its proposed Deltaport 4 expansion to create a fourth berth, GCT has forecast a total cost of $1.6-billion to add two million TEUs of annual container capacity at its facility by 2031. RBT2 would add 2.4 million TEUs a year for more than twice the estimated price of the Deltaport 4 project.

Factoring in capacity expansion at the Port of Prince Rupert in northern B.C., there isn’t any shipping crisis looming on the West Coast within five years, said Marko Dekovic, vice-president of public affairs for GCT Global Container Terminals Inc., which operates two sites that handle containers in the Vancouver region.

“Nonsensically expanding terminal capacity without addressing the infrastructure leading to them is not the solution to the supply-chain problems,” Mr. Dekovic said in an interview. “The port’s solution is to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

China is the largest shipper in and out of the Port of Vancouver.

Canadian trade with China rose 8 per cent last year at the Port of Vancouver, fuelling the overall increase in cargo volumes. China accounted for 37.5 million tonnes of exported and imported cargo in 2021.

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