Balancing the Trade Imbalance

Story and Photos By Allan Tannenbaum ©2001

June 27, 2001

When I shipped out in 1969 as a deckhand aboard the U.S.S. American Lark, a brand new ship more than 2 football fields in length, it became apparent that my training in cargo rigs would not be needed. Thatís because my freighter was a container ship, designed for the rapid loading and unloading of intermodal container boxes by huge dockside cranes. All kinds of cargo could be shipped in these boxes, which could be placed on truck trailers or rail cars. Turnaround time for ships in port was drastically reduced by this system. I remember how impressed I was by the way the crane operators maneuvered large heavy containers from their precarious perches.

Driving on the highway from Newark International Airport recently, I noticed vast numbers of shipping containers stacked high, covering acres and acres in the industrial area that forms the impression that most people have of New Jersey. It reminded me of Kabul, Afghanistan in 1989, three months after the Soviet pullout. Containers were everywhere, being put to use as shops, warehouses, and offices. Obviously, the Russians had brought in lots of materiél and the Afghans had nothing to export. To me, these container storage facilities around Newark were a stark symbol of Americaís gaping trade deficit. The U.S. imports far more goods than it exports, and the containers are accumulating here. In April 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, we exported goods worth $62.1 billion while importing goods worth $100.0 billion, a deficit of $37.9 billion for one month.

The Port of New York and New Jersey last year handled container traffic of 3,050,746 TEUs, or 20-foot equivalent units. (Containers come in 20 foot and 40 foot lengths.) The number of containers handled was 1,828,636. The gross tonnage imported was 13,552,230 tons and exported was 5,203,725 tons. Since more containers came in than left, and since it is cheaper to buy a new one in China than to send an empty one back, these boxes have to go somewhere. Dockside space for storing containers and trailer chassis has run out. In the Port Newark/Port Elizabeth area there are four container depot companies with a number of lots in the vicinity of the ports. The Wall Street Journal reports that up to 500,000 empty containers, double the number of two years ago, are being stockpiled in the U.S. In a scene repeated in port cities around the country, containers are piling up, resembling abandoned cities or cubist monuments.

While viewing these new pyramids from the highway is fascinating, being inside a depot during operations is amazing. Streams of 18-wheelers enter and leave the facility constantly, either to pick up or drop off empty containers. Following a tractor-trailer from check-in, where the box is inspected for damage, one finds oneself in canyons of colorful boxes piled high. Caution is the watchword among the trucks and stackers moving around. The trucker will stop at the place where the particular shipping companyís boxes are stored, and a special lift machine will pick the box up from the trailer as the driver pulls his rig out of the way. Then the lift operator skillfully places the box in its proper stack, or starts a new stack. The depot I visited can stack containers eight high, about the height of a six-story building. Itís very impressive to see these huge boxes hoisted to this height and then delicately maneuvered so that all four corners lock on the container below. Of course, the process is often reversed, with containers being picked from stacks and lowered on to waiting trucks to be delivered to a port, warehouse, or factory.

Besides the forklift (capable of up to three-high stacking), there are two types of specialized heavy lift equipment in use at this depot. The most versatile is the reach stacker, which is capable of up to eight-high stacking of 8'6" units and up to seven-high stacking of 9'6" units. It has a single telescoping arm that can reach horizontally as well as vertically. The second is the spreader, which is capable of up to seven-high stacking of 8'6" units and up to six-high stacking of 9'6" units. Each machine itself is a fairly standard combination of an industrial lift truck chassis and a turbo diesel engine; it's the lift attachment and related systems that are uniquely tailored to the intermodal container application. Resembling battle-bots on steroids, the stackers rumble around the yards, deftly picking and placing big bulky boxes with ease. Itís a testament to the skill of their operators to see a 40-foot container balancing on the end of the reach stackerís arm 70 feet in the air as itís being lowered into place.

Many of these containers are considered surplus and are for sale. Today one sees former shipping boxes in use as storage facilities at construction sites and they have even been converted for temporary office and classroom use. Thereís no question that they are an indicator of Americaís trade imbalance, but the container depot traffic serves as another economic indicator as well. At the depot I visited, a checker told me that the volume of traffic has decreased since George W. Bush became president; a sure sign that trade is diminishing as the economy cools down. The D.O.C. trade graphs show this trend. Perhaps container depot traffic should join housing starts and wholesale inventories as a leading economic indicator.

Allan Tannenbaum

182 Duane Street
New York, NY 10013
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