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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.