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No port in North or South America is currently able to take the vessels, nor are the newly expanded Panama Canal locks, due to open next year. The Triple-Es will squeeze through the Suez Canal, allowing them to service the China-to-Europe route, bringing in goods but returning mostly empty, save for some scrap metal and plastic waste for recycling.

The ships are called the Triple-E class for the three main purposes behind their creation — economy of scale, energy efficiency and environmental improvement. Four-hundred metres long, 59 metres wide and 73 metres high, Triple-Es will be the largest vessels of any type on the water. Its 18,000 TEU (20-foot container) capacity is large enough to hold 108 million pairs of sneakers.

Maersk Line, a unit of Danish group A.P. Moeller-Maersk, carries more than 15 per cent of all sea-borne containers. "When we bring in these bigger ships, we will take other ships out in order to make sure that overall we don't put more capacity into the trade than we need," said Tim Smith, Maersk's North Asia chief.

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