The great Australian empty box debate

Maersk’s decision to return import containers down-under has upset terminal operators. Credit: Maersk Line Maersk’s decision to return import containers down-under has upset terminal operators. Credit: Maersk Line
Industry Database

COMMENT: A recent Customer Advisory note issued by Maersk Line Australia sent the shipping fraternity into a frenzy, writes Peter van Duyn

The note announced that it would be introducing a ‘Return of import containers to Australian shipping terminals’ policy. This practice – common at overseas container terminals, much to the chagrin of the container terminal operators – has up to now only been used sporadically in Australian container terminals.

Empty repositioning of containers is a non-revenue-earning part of the container logistics chain caused by the large imbalance between import and export containers.

The motive for the ‘direct return’ is to save the extra move to and from the empty container park (ECP) with its associated transport and handling costs. A number of stakeholders in the logistics chain have complained about the potential increased costs in implementing this ‘direct return’.

There are also implications for transport operators. Instead of returning the empty containers to the ECP, with a quick turnaround for the trucks, the transport operator must co-ordinate the timing of the container unpack at the importer (usually during ‘banking hours’), lodge an electronic Pre-Receival Advice, book a Vehicle Booking System time slot (required for being serviced at the container terminal) and hope for a quick turnaround.

There are a number of reasons why the ‘direct return’ practice has increased recently in Australian container terminals, including the continuous drive by shipping lines to reduce costs and increased competition between stevedores with pressure by shipping lines to offer ‘direct return’. Also, stevedores currently have sufficient yard space to accommodate the empty containers and can now ascertain the condition of the container (i.e. record any damage) when it arrives at the terminal receival gate using Optical Character Recognition and CCTV technology, enabling the shipping line to check if the container was damaged before it arrived at the container terminal.

If this practice becomes widespread and, when container volumes increase, yard space at the terminals will come at a premium and storing empty containers will not be the main priority. Terminal operators might rue the day when they reluctantly agreed to accommodate the shipping lines.

Peter van Duyn is director of ICHCA Australia Ltd.

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