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Port of Vancouver sets container volume record with empties, imports

Port authority CEO calls for more capacity

The Port of Vancouver handled a lot of containers in 2021. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Port of Vancouver handled a record volume of containers in 2021 on increased demand for imports and a surge in exports of empties returning to Asia amid a challenging year for Canada’s largest maritime trade facility. 

Container volumes increased by 6% to 3.7 million twenty-foot equivalent units compared to 2021, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority reported in its annual statistics released on Thursday. Growth of overall cargo volumes was more muted, rising by 1% to 146 million metric tons.

The port faced a difficult year with the additional challenge of severe weather, adding to the unprecedented demands on the global supply chain. Two major disruptions to CN and Canadian Pacific rail service occurred — in July and December — first with wildfires and then flooding and landslides

Volume of laden containers drops

The overall picture for container shipping at the port was mixed. The volume of laden containers dropped by 2% to 2.8 million TEUs. Inbound volumes increased by 6%, but outbound declined by 16%.

The volume of empty containers, however, jumped by 42% to nearly 900,000 TEUs. As the port authority noted in its news release, the exodus of empties made it harder for exporters to get access to containers.

Beyond container growth, Vancouver saw breakbulk cargo rise by 18% to 19.8 million metric tons on the strength of metals. Dry bulk volumes increased by 1% and coal jumped 19%, while grain and potash saw double-digit declines. 


Liquid bulk tonnage dropped by 8%, led by drops in canola oil, crude oil and chemicals. 

Port authority CEO: Container terminal capacity ‘urgently needed’

Robin Silvester, the port authority’s president and CEO, pointed to container growth as evidence of the need to increase capacity.

“The 2021 container story, while a record for the fifth year in a row, is a warning on two fronts: a looming container capacity shortage and the Lower Mainland’s industrial land shortage crisis,” Silvester said in a statement.  

The port authority is continuing to push for the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 expansion project, which has faced years of delays in environmental review.

“Globally-based supply-chain problems that Canadians are experiencing now are a preview of made-in-Canada supply-chain problems that are heading our way in a few years if, as a country, we don’t deliver urgently needed container terminal capacity,” Silvester said.

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Nate Tabak

Nate Tabak is a Toronto-based journalist and producer who covers cybersecurity and cross-border trucking and logistics for FreightWaves. He spent seven years reporting stories in the Balkans and Eastern Europe as a reporter, producer and editor based in Kosovo. He previously worked at newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the San Jose Mercury News. He graduated from UC Berkeley, where he studied the history of American policing. Contact Nate at [email protected]