Thousands of shipping containers, some empty, others full of cargo, flood the Port of Tacoma with no glut in sight. This is the result of the economic havoc wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic which has also led to increased prices and product shortages.
“It will probably be a steady growth between now and December,” Melanie Stambaugh, spokesperson for the Alliance of North West Seaports, said Thursday. The Alliance manages both the ports of Tacoma and Seattle.
A variety of factors caused by the pandemic are bringing more containers to Tacoma than they are leaving.
The 40-foot-long steel containers, which can be easily unloaded from ships and then transferred to trucks and trains, are the backbone of the shipping industry. They can arrive in Tacoma loaded with furniture or electronics from Asia and leave with frozen potatoes or paper products.
The system relies on ships, trains and trucks arriving and departing on time as well as workers to load and transport cargo. It also depends on a fairly regular flow of supply and demand.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown an adjustable wrench into this carefully choreographed ballet. Manufacturing stoppages and labor shortages affected supply while consumer demands changed overnight in March 2020. Container traffic dropped dramatically in 2020. Now it is increasing .
Meanwhile, shipping officials and port managers in Asia can only dream of having the burden of Tacoma. Abundance in North America has a corresponding scarcity in Asia where the lack of containers is leading to an increase in the prices of metal cans and the cost of their shipping.
Ships to Asia from Tacoma typically carry a mix of empty and full containers. Trade imbalances, COVID-related lockdowns, ships leaving U.S. ports without taking the time to reload empty containers and other factors have all contributed to the container imbalance.
The growing stack of containers at the port, some seven tall, is a mix of empty and full, Stambaugh said.
Every ship leaving Tacoma now carries at least a few empty containers, Stambaugh said – but not enough to reduce the growing pile.
Why are full containers part of the problem? It’s not just ships and containers in short supply, Stambaugh said. Even rail frames, the rail component needed to move containers, are often in short supply, she said. Labor shortages and warehouse capacity also contribute to the problem.
The congestion was first felt in california in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach this year.
“But this congestion has really taken over the west coast,” said Stambaugh. In May, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, which are often the second stop for ships after leaving ports in Southern California, began to experience increased congestion, she said.
Now, the spike in shipping ahead of the 2021 holiday season is making the problem worse, she said.
It might not be in time for Christmas, but a new Seattle marine terminal will open in January. That should alleviate some of the container abundance, Stambaugh said.
“Locally, we have a wastegate in January,” she said.