A broad challenge facing the U.S. maritime industry is the repositioning of empty containers after they have been emptied of the goods they transported to the United States. During the past 20 years, as merchandise trade between the United States and its trading partners-particularly Asia-Pacific Rim countries- mushroomed and the trade imbalance grew, the number of empty containers idling in the United States increased. In general, the larger the trade imbalance, the greater the need to reposition empty containers for shippers to use for exports.
Although containers are designed to be reused (with new cargo loaded for a new location soon after the original cargo is off-loaded), in many cases the cost of transporting an empty container to a place where it can be reloaded is higher than the container is worth, particularly when empty containers must be transported from inland locations to U.S. shippers or overseas.
In 1997, the difference between TEUs of U.S. containerized imports and exports was about 715,000. By 2006, the difference had reached a record high of nearly 10 million TEUs. In 2008, it was about 6 million TEUs. These large numbers illustrate the magnitude of the challenge of handling idle containers.
Empty containers are stored near seaports and inland intermodal transfer locations. Los Angeles, Long Beach, and New York/New Jersey are the three largest port markets where leasing companies and shipping lines store empty containers, and Chicago, Dallas, and Memphis are notable storage locations for empty containers inland (Mongelluzzo 2008). In 2008, the nation's top container port, the Port of Los Angeles, handled about 1.9 million TEUs of empty export containers, accounting for 51 percent of the total outbound export TEUs for the port.