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The Environmental Benefits of Utilizing Used Shipping Containers

April 16, 2018
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We’re written previously about a number of fascinating alternative uses for shipping containers that individuals and companies around the world have begun to adopt. It’s really not surprising that all of these alternative uses have come about since shipping containers are durable, weather resistant, and transportable, giving them impressive versatility.

To go along with the uses in the article linked above, we wanted to detail how shipping containers are being utilized by different groups to help the environment. Read on to find out how these adaptable containers can help people go green!

Why Shipping Containers?

Shipping containers were first developed by Malcolm McLean and Keith Tantlinger in 1955, revolutionizing the way goods are transported throughout the world. In the modern era, shipping containers are being utilized by so many people and groups for purposes other than their standard one largely because these containers are some of the most durable modular structures in existence.

The containers are built to carry cargo for extended time periods, but following their use for this purpose they can be altered and retrofitted to meet the needs of a variety of additional tasks. This new development has even been given a name – container architecture, or cargotecture.

Shipping Container Homes

One key way shipping containers are benefitting the environment can be found in their recent usage for housing. As Green Future notes in an article, the patent for converting shipping containers into habitable spaces was initially filed by Phillip C. Clark in 1987, but it’s taken a couple of decades for the rest of the world to catch up to his foresight.

Some major ways these modern shipping container homes are helping the environment include:

  • Shipping container homes are essentially recyclables in and of themselves, significantly reducing the need for construction materials and shrinking homeowners’ ecological footprint
  • Solar panels and insulation can boost these homes’ eco-friendliness, and due to their simple design, such aspects can be added quite easily. The flat rooves of the containers make them particularly ideal for solar panels
  • Tiny houses constructed out of shipping containers can save homeowners significantly when it comes to lighting costs, as an average home has 45 lightbulbs consuming 639 kWh per year vs. a tiny home with an average of just 6 lightbulbs consuming 85.2 kWh per year
  • Total energy consumption and costs can be significantly reduced as well. Total electricity usage can be as low as 914 kWh per year vs. an average of 12,773 kWh per year for a standard home, with heating and cooling requiring as little as 844 pounds of CO2 per year vs. an average of 12,000 pounds for a standard home

If you’re thinking about converting a shipping container into a new tiny home, be sure to check out our recent tiny home post that chronicles a lot of their benefits beyond the environmental impact.

Shipping Containers for Agriculture

Another fascinating way companies have begun to utilize shipping containers is within agricultural contexts. As outlined in an article by DW, a Boston agritech company called Freight Farms has made a name for themselves by converting old shipping containers into hydroponic farms they’ve dubbed Leafy Green Machines.

These systems are being designed to help regions grow crops year-round, particularly in more arid areas. A few key points about Freight Farms and their operations:

  • After acquiring a shipping container, the company installs the needed hydroponics equipment, climate controls, custom workbench, controlled-environment insulation, and more
  • The company includes a mandatory two-day training program (as part of the purchase price) to fully acclimate customers to the full workings of their Leafy Green Machines
  • Each system includes a smartphone app for customers which allows them to oversee the temperature, humidity, and CO2 and nutrient flow levels from their phone or tablet, while also being able to see within the container by way of a camera system
  • The farms are designed to grow leafy greens such as mint, oregano, basil, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, mustard greens, and lettuces

Some of the environmental advantages of using these systems include:

  • Since the Leafy Green Machines are able to support crops year-round (producing several hundred heads of lettuce or other greens per week), refrigeration usage and costs tied to providing fresh greens are significantly reduced
  • Fuel usage is also greatly reduced since long trips to deliver goods aren’t be needed with the systems placed in local areas – and if a grocery store opted to utilize some of the units themselves, fuel usage and transportation costs could be virtually eliminated
  • The eco-friendliness of these systems is projected to be boosted by the development of renewable energy resources. Attaching solar panels to a Leafy Green Machine at some point in the future could help to further reduce buyers’ carbon footprints and potentially their overall operating costs

Freight Farms has been working with a variety of growers since their founding, including Corner Stalk Farm, Elevated Harvest, and Shaggy Bear Farm, showing that the interest for going green is definitely out there!

Shaggy Bear Farm

As outlined in an article by EcoWatch, Kim Curren is the owner of Shaggy Bear Farm which utilizes a hydroponic system from Freight Farms in its operations in Bozeman, Montana.

Curren was drawn to use Freight Farms’ systems because she believed supplying her community with locally-grown food that was chemical free would be greatly beneficial, especially when she would be able to do so year-round despite Montana’s challenging climate.

Some key environmental impacts she’s been able to bring about from her efforts include:

  • Each converted shipping container is able to grow 4,000 plants and requires only 10 gallons of water a day to do so, which is 90% less than the amount needed for conventional farming methods
  • Curren’s system recycles excess water back into the main tank, giving her operations an even greater ecological boost
  • The greens she produces are all supplied to local farmers markets and restaurants, and she opts to purchase seeds from a local seed co-op when she is able to, both aspects significantly cutting down fuel consumption for the transportation of goods

Curren’s focus on the environment, and the community, is commendable. As she states in the EcoWatch article:

“I really believe food should be community. In places that have limited growing seasons, it's a way to keep locally growing food in communities and not be reliant on trucking things in from all over.”

Here’s to hoping more companies and individuals take a page from Curren and start adopting these versatile hydroponic shipping container systems. We’ve seen some similar projects emerge from Growtainer and CropBox, and we’re confident more will be on the way!

Check Out Our Blog!

For further insights about shipping container uses, the intermodal industry, and more, be sure to follow our blog! And if you have any questions for us about shipping containers, or are considering incorporating them into your operations, feel free to contact CPG today.