Containers | A brilliant idea

A very special box

The idea is as simple as it is ingenious: an all-purpose container, standardized world-wide and the same everywhere, like Lego bricks. They can be extended or exchanged, but always fit and can be used and re-used everywhere. The same goes for containers. All over the world you see the same colourful steel boxes. They fit on huge ships as well as on trucks or railcars. They are compatible with all transport modes.


That was not always the case. Boxes, sacks, pallets, crates, barrels, and bales had to be handled individually, at huge costs in time and labour. Today, the standardized containers, packed with various goods, are simply loaded from one means of transport to another. That sounds simple and logical, but when containerization was first being developed it was in fact a revolutionary idea.

38 million containers (TEU) are now circulating around the world.

Gateway to the Port of Hamburg, Photo: Achim Multhaupt

From containerization to globalization

The use of containers cut transport costs by up to 90 percent almost overnight. For consumers that brought a huge variety of products at low prices. Goods from distant countries suddenly became affordable thanks to container shipping.


Thus, containers did not just revolutionize the shipping business, they changed world trade on the whole and made globalization a real possibility. Containers brought the world together, shrinking distances. Container throughput in the world’s ports has more than tripled from 200 million to 620 million standard containers (TEU), just in the period since 2000. In a row, these containers would reach around the globe almost 94 times. By the way, the Port of Hamburg has a share of 9 million TEU in container transport. That is enough to make the port one of the top 20 container ports worldwide. Hamburg is also one of Europe’s most important gateways for world trade.

Everybody is talking about TEU! What does that mean?

20 feet is the measure of all things in the world of transportation. Since containers were an American invention and shipping tends to be oriented to the English-speaking world, the standard length of a container is measured in feet and not in metres. TEU stands for Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit, corresponding to one 20-foot container. 40-foot containers are also a standard size, so one 40-foot container counts as two TEU. The unit TEU is used to measure the capacity of container ships or the cargo volumes in seaports.

Do not lose track of the number

Around 38 million standard containers (TEU) are currently in use worldwide. If they are all the same, how can anybody keep track of them? Each individual container has its own number, making it unique. The container number is made up of four capital letters, the prefix, which refers to the owner. For example, the German container shipping line Hapag-Lloyd has the prefix HXLU. Then a six-digit serial number follows, as well as a control number. Its container number allows each box to be identified, no matter where it is, and its position on a ship or in a port can be determined.

Containers need to be tough, but not heavy. To ensure the necessary stability, the sides of containers are built of corrugated steel, allowing them to stand up to heavy use. Transport can be rough. Containers are stacked in many layers aboard ship. Furthermore, they are constantly shifted from ship to railcar, then to a truck, and so on, have to hold up under the motion of rough seas, endure the vibration from rail transport, and more. That all puts a heavy strain on containers, so they only have an average service life of twelve years before being replaced.

Why are containers corrugated?

What do containers have to do with our money purses?

Bananas, coffee, t-shirts, kitchen appliances, wine, mobile phones, etc., etc. Almost everything we use every day was packed in a container at some time. Containerization also helps ensure that the store shelves are always full, that the supply of goods does not stop. Containers keep transport costs down, making products affordable. For example: around 10,000 pairs of jeans fit into a 40-foot container. Shipping from Asia to Hamburg costs about 1,500 euros. Forwarding from the factory and to the consumers costs about the same. With shipping costs adding up to about 3,000 euros in all, the cost per pair of jeans is only about 30 cents.

Hafen Hamburg Marketing e.V. (HHM)

Pickhuben 6

20457 Hamburg



In co-operation of

Hafen Hamburg Marketing e.V. (HHM),

Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG and

Hamburg Port Authority AöR