How 'used' really are the trendy repurposed shipping containers we find in cities like Bristol?

These shipping containers at Copper King's Distillery in the US may or may not be made from shipped-once containers. Image: CMYK4317/crative commons.

Along Bristol’s harbourside, past the M Shed museum with its 1950s quayside cranes, lies CARGO 1 and 2, a correspondingly industrial prospect.

Here, 56 converted shipping containers form Bristol’s newest food and retail spot.

In a city whose buzzwords include “upcycling” and “pop-up”, these steel boxes have become building blocks for anything from fruit and veg shops to outdoor performance spaces at The Bearpit – “think Urban Minack,” Chris Chalkley, chairman of the People's Republic of Stokes Croft, says.

Bristol is not alone.

Around the world, shipping containers are being adopted by businesses whose social or environmental values align with the repurposed aesthetic of the containers, including mobile solar grids in rural South Africa and indoor farms in Atlanta, Georgia.

But despite their industrial appearance, many of the shipping containers used on our waterfronts are as brand new as they could possibly be, having done a single journey from China to the UK with miscellaneous cargo before being repurposed.

If you bought a shipping container a decade ago, it would most likely have been second-hand, and well-travelled. Over the last ten years, however, the trade in once-shipped containers has boomed.

Sam Baggley, UK container sales and conversions manager at logistics company Pentalver, says that since new (shipped only once) containers can end up costing less than second-hand ones, 95 per cent of his customers buying a container for a modified purpose will opt for the former.

“Normally the actual modification is more expensive than the starting container, so to start with a new container with no dents or cosmetic damage is a more attractive proposition,” he says.

The increased demand for new containers and their cheap cost in recent years have been factors determining this trend.

Take CARGO 1 for instance, where 18, shipped-once containers have been picked for their structural integrity.

CARGO 1, in Bristol. Image: Anthony O'Neil.

“We wanted the best quality that we could get,” Stuart Hatton, director at Umberslade and developer of CARGO, tells me.

In fact, once-shipped containers are often made to lower specifications in the first place, explains Søren Leth Johannsen, chief commercial officer at Denmark’s Maersk Container Industry.

“So-called one-ways are built at lower standards, from thinner steel,” he says.

“They are built for just one load from China to Europe, or America, where they will then be used for an alternative use, such as storage.” On building sites, for instance.

So shipping such contain very repurpose wow. Image: Mgunn.

This reduced specification, of roughly 200kg per container, keeps the price of once-shipped containers down, and according to Sam Baggley, the average saving on a one-way container as versus a full repurposing is about £115 to £160.

Keith Dewey, creator of Zigloo Domestique, a residential development made from upcycled shipping containers in the city of Victoria, British Columbia, believes that using once-shipped containers has an impact on the environmental credentials of such projects.

Dewey cites the average 15-year lifespan of a container that is then shipped back to China, cut up, melted down, and turned into steel.

By repurposing the container before it is shipped back to China, he believes “there is a huge carbon footprint offset”. The container is used for its full 15-year lifespan and is then repurposed, cutting out the latter recycling stage. 

“In the Zigloo Domestique project I estimate that we saved 70 trees’ worth of structure and finish materials by employing 8TEUs,” he says.
There are slightly more than thirty million TEU shipping containers in global circulation (TEU is the twenty-foot equivalent unit used to count containers according to length) – that’s a lot of steel to be recycled or repurposed at some stage.

Indeed, “steel is the most recycled material in the world – more than paper, plastic, aluminium and glass combined,” Jim Woods, senior director of sustainability communications at the American Iron and Steel Institute, says.

East London's Container City. Image: .Martin.

One benefit of steel is that it is continuously recyclable. Steel from a shipping container can go on to be used in a car or bridge, for example. “The continuous recyclability of steel has earned it a designation as a permanent material, which is foundational to achieving the circular economy.”


But as more and more projects opt for alternatives to steel shipping containers – such as Josh Littlejohn’s village housing the homeless population of Edinburgh, and pioneer timber technologies – such as at Dalston Lane, the largest cross laminated timber building in the world – is it time to ask whether the tide is changing?

For Mark Hogan, architect and principal at OpenScope Studio, timber is superior to steel as a material for modular building solutions.

“Timber is environmentally friendly, it sequesters carbon and is easier to insulate than the steel containers,” he says.

“In container building, the walls need to be furred out with framing to conceal building services and provide insulation, so the steel wall of the container is almost redundant.”

As new alternatives to these steel bulks are developed, it will be down to the exponents of the shipping container to convince us that once-shipped is the way to go.

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Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.