An increasing number of people are looking to building with shipping containers as a possible way to generate new housing while being more environmentally friendly. The world’s growing population, dwindling supplies of finite resources, and changing climate is causing many people to be more aware of their impact on the environment.
When we talk about sustainability in the context of construction, we’re usually referring to its more relevant subset, sustainable development. Sustainable development speaks to building in a way that doesn’t negatively impact future generations with pollution, reduced access to natural resources, etc. Said another way, it’s meeting the needs of people today without preventing the people in future years to meet their own needs.
Concerned global citizens are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and become more eco-conscious. This, in turn, is leading many to look for more responsible and sustainable means of construction.
Using recycled materials or giving previously used materials a second life are two great ways to achieve this. After all, if we can use materials we already have, that’s less new material we need to extract from the earth and turn into products.
However, containers aren’t universally a goldmine of eco-friendliness. They need to be used in the right way to see a net benefit.
In previous informal surveys that we’ve conducted, the second most common reason for seeking out shipping container construction was because it was perceived to be eco-friendly.
It is a trend that isn’t unique to just construction but one that has been gradually building momentum for the last few decades across areas of the global economy as diverse as transportation and food.
Even for those who are less concerned with the environment, if they practice some of the ideas of minimalism, they often end up in the same place.
Minimalism preaches against the western idea that ‘more’ is always better. Instead, efficiency and even happiness can be gained by minimizing the resources you use, the stuff you collect, and the decisions you make.
If we frame the ecosystem of handling trash and leftovers as a stage, recycling usually gets most of the spotlight. That’s probably because it requires minimal effort from individual users (event though it does requires complex systems and supply chains).
Recycling basically asks you to take the things you’re already throwing away and just put them in a different bin. But someone out there has to collect this waste that you carefully sort, transport it, process it, and ultimately turn it into something useful.
As it turns out, recycling is actually the last step of a three-phase hierarchy of waste management commonly known as the “Three R’s”. In the preferred order of execution, they are: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Together they help conserve natural resources, landfill space, energy, and money. As we talk about this subject with regards to shipping contain construction, it’s important to focus not just on the actual containers themselves, but also on all the other buildings materials involved.
The easiest way to reduce what get’s thrown away is to use less stuff in the first place. This is sometimes called precycling. It can require some thoughtful consideration to separate needs from wants but saves you from having to find alternatives to reuse or recycle later on.
In the realm of residential construction, this often manifests itself in the form of tiny homes. White the criteria for what exactly fits in the category of ‘tiny home’ is a bit grey, the general idea is to focus on having a space that’s big enough to meet your needs without excess.
But building size isn’t the only lever you can pull to reduce what you use. Another option is using less ‘stuff’ for the same space.
For instance, do you really need TV’s for each room, or is one enough? Does your family really need multiple bathrooms, or with thoughtful scheduling (and the help of technology like on-demand water heaters) would you be fine with one?
While we’ve been focusing on the consumption of material goods, the argument could just as easily apply to energy. After all, most energy in the world is still supplied by finite resources like oil, gas, and coal that also happen to be major pollution contributors.
Perhaps by using more natural sunlight and fewer electric lights, using shade and insulation to reduce HVAC requirements, and adding solar power, you could substantially reduce the energy you consume.
Reuse, sometimes called upcycling, can be summed up by the saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” To understand how the concept of reuse fits into your life, you first have to think through the lifecycle of a product.
You start with the premise that everything is created for a purpose. From there, after that purpose is fulfilled, you have four choices:
With containers, the first option often happens before you even buy it. Used containers have been utilized dozens if not hundreds of times before they are put up for sale. The entire system of containerization is actually predicated on the idea of reusing the same container multiple times, which is one of the reasons it was such an improvement on legacy methods of moving cargo.
The second option is the focus of this section. The idea is that at some point, a used container reaches the end of its life. It’s a bit worn, scratched, and maybe even dented. It’s been around the world several times and has the scars to prove it.
The owner makes an economic decision that trying to fix it up once again is no longer a worthwhile use of their funds. But is it now purely junk, just taking up space like a pile of garbage? Hardly!
Instead, with upcycling, the old container that’s no longer useful for it’s intended purpose can be repurposed into something more valuable. Upcycling takes less energy to process than the recycling alternative discussed below. You aren’t breaking the object down to its raw materials, but instead just reconfiguring what you already have. And as a bonus, you need fewer amounts of other materials like wood and concrete than you otherwise would.
Constructing with used containers not only helps the environment through recycling, but it also means that additional materials (such as bricks and concrete) aren’t used.
Reusing a shipping container as a building material is actually a way of restarting the clock and giving that cargo box a second life. The requirements for surviving transocean voyages completely full of cargo are quite a bit higher than what is required to serve as a dwelling or office space.
There is still plenty of ‘life’ left in these containers for enterprising people who can see their potential. And, nothing says they can’t be recycled in the future.
Don’t forget that the story doesn’t even have to end at serving as the bones for a new building. Containers can contribute even more during the construction process. For instance, any cuttings you remove to make space for doors and windows can be used to create things like awnings or storm shutters.
As we’ve mentioned already, recycling is preferable to sending something to a landfill, but waste prevention (in the form of reduce and reuse) is even better. However, if you’ve already taken the steps of Reduce and Reuse, and you still have something left over, it’s time to look into recycling.
Recycling normally involved a chemical or mechanical process that breaks a product down into its raw materials or elements. It’s not really something you can do at home in most cases, and it requires energy to complete. What results is a new material.
Some materials can be recycled almost perpetually, with the new materials basically the same as the parent material. Think of broken glass making new glass or crushed soda cans to make new soda cans.
But eventually, trace elements in the material start to grow in concentration to the point that the item can no longer be recycled back into its original use. That’s where downcycling comes in.
Downcycling still leads to the creation of a new product, but it’s one with less value than that of the parent product. An example is recycled paper that after a few iterations must eventually be turned into paperboard instead as the paper fibers get too short to make plain paper.
You can make recycled shipping containers from older containers or downcycle them into something else with lesser quality steel. Either way, it requires quite a bit of energy to melt them into molten steel and manufacture new products.
For this reason, shipping container recycling often isn’t economically viable and is why you see cargo boxes stacked up everywhere instead. Until they are just completely rusted and full of holes, in most cases, they are worth more as a cargo container than as scrap metal.
Remember to factor in the other construction materials as well, and know that not everything is able to be recycled. Some materials, if they can’t be reused, usually must just be thrown away. If you can’t buy products that have been recycled, you can at least try to use things that are recyclable.
There are millions of shipping containers in the world, but only a fraction of them are in service and used actively. Many of the remaining containers are wasting away in ports and storage yards across the world.
Using one of these already existing containers as the basis for a home is a great example of upcycling or adaptive reuse. With so many shipping containers stacking up in shipyards, junkyards, and ports, there are a plethora of containers for you to buy and turn into your next building.
While the exact number of excess shipping containers is hard to track, we can infer that there are plenty of them. And logic tells us that every year, more of them reach their end of life, creating a new supply of additional empty containers.
Due to containers being commodities, their prices are driven by the laws of supply and command. Until you see a large spike in the cost of used shipping containers, rest assured that there are plenty of them around.
There are some that like to argue that shipping container housing is overkill, a poor use of resources, and that containers should be recycled instead. While on the surface it may seem they have a good point, the truth is not quite as clear.
One common idea is that the steel from cargo containers should just be repurposed into steel wall studs.
The argument states that depending on the thickness desired, an 8-foot steel stud weighs between two and eight pounds. So a 40ft container weighing a bit over 8000 pounds makes roughly 1000 to 4000 studs. It may sound like no brainer to process the container into steel studs which could be used to make dozens of houses, but this analysis misses quite a bit.
First, it ignores the top and bottom channels that are also needed, not to mention the thousands of screws that have to be used to attach everything together. And what about siding of some sort to skin over the studs?
At the time this article was written, scrap steel was selling for about $100/ton in North America. This means a 40ft container (weighing a bit over 8000 pounds or 4 tons) is worth about $400 as scrap. However, a used 40ft container in a useable condition likely won’t sell for less than $1500.
The cost gap actually widens when you factor in other expenses. You’d have to move the shipping container to a recycler, who breaks it down and sells it to a steel mill, who then sells the newly processed steel rolls to a manufacturer who makes the studs. Then the studs have to be shipped back to you. That’s a lot of transporting and processing which costs money, uses energy, and causes pollution.
It’s hard to factor in all these costs to do a true comparison, but the takeaway is that acting like you can snap your fingers and turn a single shipping container into the materials needed to build dozens of homes is disingenuous.
There very well may be cases where recycling containers into other products, like steel studs, makes sense. But for many people, moving higher up the waste management hierarchy and pursuing reuse through shipping container construction is an environmentally-friendly choice.
Containers are a great way to upcycle a product that in many cases can’t be economically recycled. Rather than let them deteriorate they can be used as construction materials. While there are a number of other reasons that you might choose to use containers for your next building project, their ability to increase the sustainability of your project certainly belongs on the list.
Also, remember that we have more ideas about how you can incorporate environmentalism into your shipping container homes construction and use in our Learning section.
Let us know below in the comments about others way to think about how containers fit into an environmentally-friendly, sustainable development mindset.
Is a Container Home Right for You?