Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Stacked shipping containers at the Port of Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The Port of Vancouver is sending record numbers of empty shipping containers to Asia, underscoring the chaotic effects of a recent recovery in global trade volumes.

Usually, shipping companies try to maximize cargo-carrying efficiency by keeping the reusable steel containers full in both directions of a voyage. When a boat unloads a shipping container of Asian import goods, the box is ideally refilled with Canadian export goods before it makes its return trip to Asia.

But, in the first eight months of this year, the volume of empty shipping containers leaving the Port of Vancouver soared, compared with the same period last year.

Story continues below advertisement

The reason so many shipping containers are going back to Asia filled with nothing but air has to do with a surge in consumer demand for Asian goods, as Canadians resume spending after an early-pandemic lull. Rather than waiting for the containers to be loaded with Canadian goods, shipping companies are paying for them to be sent to Asia empty, so that they can be filled faster for the trip back to Canada, said Robin Silvester, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority.

The pursuit of the scarce metal boxes by Asian shippers has made it more difficult for exporters based in Canada to get their hands on containers.

“It’s a symptom of the congestion in the supply chain,” Mr. Silvester said. “When you see the surges in the supply chain that we’re seeing at the moment, shipping lines just want to get those boxes back to Asia.”

Container trade is tracked through an industry measurement called TEUs (20-foot-shipping-container equivalent units). There were 597,443 TEUs of empty containers exported from Vancouver in the first eight months of this year, up 89 per cent from the same period in 2020. And 2020 was previously the record-high year for empty-container shipments from the port.

Almost half of all the containers that have left Vancouver so far this year have been empty.

In total, the Port of Vancouver has handled 2.55 million TEUs of both imports and exports during the first eight months of 2021, up 17 per cent from the same period in 2020.

China is the largest shipper into the Port of Vancouver of containerized merchandise, including consumer goods. And China is also Canada’s largest customer for exports of wheat and specialty crops, which are mostly transported as bulk cargo inside the hulls of ships, but can also be sent inside containers.

Story continues below advertisement

The problems with container logistics are not limited to Canada. Port congestion is worsening around the world as the global supply chain reacts to an increase in trade after 2020′s pandemic-induced lows.

“Carriers prefer to reposition empty boxes instead of laden boxes to reduce the turnaround time,” DHL Global Forwarding said in a recent presentation to its clients.

Expanding Vancouver’s port capacity could provide some relief, but efforts to do so are still months or years away from producing results.

Dubai-based DP World PLC, which operates the Centerm terminal at Burrard Inlet along Vancouver’s waterfront, plans to add 600,000 TEUs of annual capacity, for a total of 1.5 million TEUs by mid-2022. Construction of the expansion, which is expected to cost $454-million, is forecast to be 90 per cent complete by the end of this year.

Mr. Silvester is hoping the federal cabinet will rule by the end of March on the Port of Vancouver’s plans for a new $3.5-billion container terminal to be located near Delta, B.C., about 30 kilometres south of Vancouver.

The port is touting the project, called Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (RBT2), as a crucial expansion of shipping-container capacity on the West Coast to meet an anticipated increase in trans-Pacific traffic, including imports of consumer goods from Asia.

Story continues below advertisement

RBT2 would require construction of an artificial island near an existing coal-export terminal and shipping-container site. “The reason we’re moving RBT2 forward is we did a thorough analysis and have done a huge amount of environmental work over the course of 10 years. And it continues, based on all that work, in our view, to be the best opportunity to create critical capacity for Canada,” Mr. Silvester said.

Even with the Centerm expansion underway, the Port of Vancouver’s administrators are worried that Canada’s West Coast will run out of space to handle additional container shipments as early as 2025. “That’s actually kind of scary, because we can’t create capacity that quickly,” Mr. Silvester said. “So it really just underlines the importance of getting [RBT2] to move forward and creating that capacity. Otherwise, Canada is running out of capacity for containers, and that’s a problem for all of us.”

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

While the port’s hope is to open RBT2 in 2030, GCT has argued that its proposed Deltaport 4 expansion, which would add a fourth berth to its own facility, is a much better solution for supplying extra container capacity in the long term.

GCT has forecasted a total cost of $1.6-billion to add two million TEUs of annual container capacity at its facility. RBT2 would add 2.4 million TEUs for more than twice the estimated price.

GCT’s proposal is undergoing a review by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada and the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office.

Story continues below advertisement

The Port of Vancouver is the landlord for container terminals at DP World’s Fraser Surrey Docks operation and GCT’s Vanterm facility. In Prince Rupert, DP World operates the Fairview container site.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies