Container shipping is the one sector which can be said to have transformed the face of shipping, certainly in the latter half of the 20th century. Unheard of before the 1960s, the container is now ubiquitous and is the standard unit of cargo for just about every form of manufactured item on the planet (there are exceptions: cars, for example, are transported in special ships designed solely for the purpose).
Today’s giant containerships typically operate between purpose-built ports served by massive cranes that can load and unload containers at astonishing rates. Containership operators can offer fixed sailing schedules with tight delivery margins and these ships are now an integral part of the modern, multi-modal transport and logistics industry.
The carrying capacity of containerships, colloquially known as boxships, is measured in twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEU (the number of 20-foot containers that a ship can carry). For example today's largest containership, the M/S Emma Maersk has a carrying capacity of 18,000 TEU.
The M/S Emma Maersk, built by Odense Steel Shipyard was delivered to Maersk in 2006; it measures 397x56m and is able to carry 11,000 20-ft. containers. The MSC Daniela built in 2008 by Samsung Shipbuilding & Heavy Industries Co. Ltd for the Mediterranean Shipping Company is the size of an aircraft carrier; Daniela completed its maiden run packed with 13,800 containers each big enough to contain the contents of a three-bedroom house. On 21 February 2011, Maersk placed an order worth $1.9 billion for 10 even larger container ships , the Triple E class. Scheduled for delivery between 2013 and 2015, they will entirely change the shipping industry’s understanding of size and efficiency. Called the ‘Triple-E’ class for the three main purposes behind their creation — Economy of scale, Energy efficient and Environmentally improved — these new container vessels do not just set a new benchmark for size: they will surpass the current industry records for fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions per container moved held by the Emma Mærsk class vessels: Four-hundred metres long, 59 metres wide and 73 metres high, the Triple-E is the largest vessel of any type on the water today. Its 18,000 TEU twenty-foot container) capacity is 16 percent greater (2,500 containers) than today’s largest container vessel, Emma Mærsk.
This ship will produce 20 percent less CO2 per container moved compared to Emma Mærsk and 50 percent less than the industry average on the Asia-Europe trade lane. In addition, it will consume approximately 35 percent less fuel per container than the 13,100 TEU vessels being delivered to other container shipping lines in the next few years, also for Asia-Europe service.
The Unctad Review of Maritime Transport 2010 states that the world cellular container ship fleet stood at 4,677 vessels, with a combined total carrying capacity of 12.8 million TEU by the beginning of 2010.