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Nearly one-third of Brisbane’s box throughput is… fresh air

A container ship carrying a mix of dry containers, reefer boxes and tank containers (right hand side) approaches the quayside at Brisbane harbour. Statistically, empty containers account for nearly one third of Brisbane’s box throughput – it’s a product of a highly unbalanced trade. Photo: Shutterstock.

Queensland’s Port of Brisbane handled just under 1.4 million twenty foot equivalent unit (TEU) shipping containers in the last calendar year. And the single largest category of ‘cargo’ handled was… fresh air.

Newly compiled data has given an insight into the nature of the container trade at the Port of Brisbane and in Australia generally.

Brisbane last year handled 1,377,976 TEU in 2018. Readers may be surprised to note that empty containers were the single biggest category of ‘cargo’ handled by the port. Just under 29 per cent of all boxes handled were empty, according to the port’s trade statistics. There were 397,185 empty boxes of which 93,231 were empty 20-footers and 303,954 were empty 40-footers.

Empty export boxes far outnumbered empty import boxes. There were 65,931 empty imported boxes (fairly evenly split between 20-footers and 40-footers) and 331,255 empty export boxes. Or, to put it another way, for every empty imported box, the were five empty exported boxes. The majority of the empty exported boxes, just over 81 percent, were 40-footers.

An unbalanced trade

The ‘fresh air’ trade reveals something unusual about Australia’s box trade – it is very highly imbalanced. The vast majority of the goods available in shops are made overseas and are then shipped to Australia. There’s not much in the way of a return trade because Australia has long since ceased to be a major manufacturing country. The return trade generally comprises a combination of empty boxes or low value freight. At the Port of Fremantle (Freo) on the west coast, for instance, Freo’s top three containerised exports are “hay, chaff and stock feed” (45,628 TEU); waste paper (21,656 TEU); and scrap metals (16,405 TEU).

It was a similar situation in the last calendar year at Brisbane. The higher value and volume box export cargoes tend to be agricultural products (like sugar, or seeds) or meat and seafood products, typically exported in reefer boxes. There were 59,980 TEU of meat that were exported in the last calendar year, along with 37,627 TEU of timber and 23,882 TEU of paper and wood pulp. The largest volumes of exports were “export other” (132,833 TEU) and “freight all kinds” (i.e. general cargo) which accounted for 35,760 boxes.

It would not be financially possible for Aussie shippers to export such low-value cargoes without the existence of a highly imbalanced import/export trade. But, because lots of empty boxes pile up in Australia, the maritime carriers are willing (if not happy) to accept nearly any cargo of any kind at low rates simply to make a contribution to cost on the dead-haul voyages back to Asia. Aussie shippers wouldn’t be able to export cargoes such as waste paper otherwise.

General cargo imports

Turning now to the import cargoes at Brisbane in the 2018 calendar year, there were 621,498 TEU of full boxes, of which 448,266 were 40-footers and 173,232 were 20-footers. The composition of the containerised cargoes reflects the general nature of the trade. The single biggest category of containerised cargo was “import other,” which accounts for about 47 percent of imported box total. Another major category of imported box cargo was “freight all kinds” (i.e. general cargo) which accounted for about 65,674 TEU, or about 11 percent of the total volume of full boxes.

The port at Brisbane is, by far, Queensland’s biggest container port (there are other ports in Queensland that exceed the throughput volumes of Brisbane but these typically handle exported dry bulk cargoes, such as thermal coal). Unfortunately, the port does not have a complete set of 2017 data to compare the 2018 data to, so the analysis cannot show year-on-year percentage change. FreightWaves sought comment from the Port of Brisbane on its trade data; however, the appropriate person was not available.

Port of Brisbane has nine operating container berths and hosts three major box stevedores – Hutchison Ports, DP World Australia and Patrick Terminals. It has 29 operating berths in total with more than 8,200 metres of quay. Brisbane is a port capable of handling a diverse range of cargoes including vehicles, coal, (Portland cement) clinker, chemicals and oil in addition to international shipping boxes. The port is operated on a landlord model whereby the state government owns the land and major land-assets but it leased the operation of the port on a 99-year basis to a private consortium of financial investors for AU$2.3 billion in late 2010. The Australian dollar was strong against the U.S. dollar back then as the Australian dollar was only a few fractions of a cent off parity. Accordingly, the U.S. dollar price in November 2010 for the Port of Brisbane port lease was USD$2.23 billion.

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