WHAT ARE CONTAINERS?
Containers are reusable storage units used by the cargo industry to store, protect and transport raw materials, manufactured goods and other goods between the seaports of different countries. First appearing in the 1950s, they are usually rectangular and primarily made of metal or fibreglass. Their design means they can carry heavy loads, be placed on top of each other into space-saving stacks on ships and in ports and resist the harsh environment of ocean voyages. The use of containers allows individual items or packages to be grouped into a single larger unit load. This reduces cargo handling which improves security, allows faster freight transport and reduces damage and losses. The use of standard container sizes simplifies movement, handling and port facilities by allowing common facilities, technology and equipment. It also means that shipping containers can be intermodal (be used by more than one mode of transport). This means, for example, that containers offloaded from international vessels at ports like Sydney or Melbourne can be transferred to rail wagons or road trucks and moved to urban or regional areas, and vice versa.
Shipping containers typically exist in 20 foot (6.1 metres) and 40 foot lengths (12.2 metres). The standard measure of containers in international trade is the twenty foot equivalent (TEU) which is the space occupied by a standard 20 foot container. Different types of containers are available depending upon the type of freight to be moved (e.g. refrigerated, liquid, insulated, flat and ventilated). Specialised or customised containers can be used for sensitive, fragile, dangerous or confidential items.
Statistics in datasets from the Ports Australia website show that for 2009-10 containerised trade accounted for just over 21% total import tonnage for Australian ports, and just under 4% of export tonnage. The main commodities not transported in shipping containers include raw materials like coal, iron ore and natural gas, although containers can be used (for example, coal can be transported in a lined container). Australia's crude oil and petroleum product imports are generally transported in merchant ships designed for the bulk transport of oil. Motor vehicles are generally transported in Roll on/Roll off ships, which are designed to allow vehicles to be driven straight onto and off the decks of the ship on their own wheels. This allows the cargo to be efficiently loaded and unloaded at port via ramps built into the vessel.
The efficient movement of containers both through a port and to / from a port is essential to all parties involved in international trade. Exporters, importers and their agents report a range of information about international cargo to Customs and Border Protection. This information, described later in the paper, was assessed for the feasibility of the ABS producing and releasing international container movement statistics.