A growing mountain of shipping containers in Tacoma is latest pandemic symbol

TACOMA, Wash. — Thousands of shipping containers, some empty, some filled with goods, are taking over the Port of Tacoma with no end to the overabundance in sight. It’s a result of the economic havoc caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that’s also led to rising prices and product shortages.

“It’ll probably be a steady growth between here to December,” Melanie Stambaugh, a spokeswoman with the Northwest Seaport Alliance, said Thursday. The Alliance runs both the Tacoma and Seattle ports.

variety of factors brought on by the pandemic are bringing more containers to Tacoma than are leaving.

The 40-foot-long steel containers, which can be easily unloaded from ships and then transferred onto trucks and trains, are the backbone of the shipping industry. They can arrive in Tacoma loaded with furniture or electronic goods from Asia and can depart with frozen potatoes or paper products.

The system relies on ships, trains and trucks arriving and departing on schedule as well as workers to load and transport the cargo. It also depends on a somewhat steady flow of supply and demand.

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The COVID-19 pandemic threw a monkey wrench into that carefully choreographed ballet. Manufacturing shutdowns and labor shortages affected supply while consumer demands changed overnight in March 2020. Container traffic dropped dramatically in 2020. Now, it’s surging.

Meanwhile, shipping officials and port managers in Asia can only dream of having Tacoma’s burden. The abundance in North America has a corresponding dearth in Asia where the lack of containers is leading to increased prices of both the metal boxes and the cost of shipping them.

Ships bound for Asia from Tacoma typically carry a mix of empty and full containers. Trade imbalances, COVID lockdowns, ships leaving American ports without taking 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 high, are a mix of both empty and full, Stambaugh said.

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Every ship leaving Tacoma now carries at least some empty containers, Stambaugh said — just not enough to reduce the growing stack.

Why are full containers part of the problem? It’s not just ships and containers in short supply, Stambaugh said. Even rail chassis, the train component needed to move containers, are often in short supply, she said. Labor shortages and warehouse capacity also contribute to the problem.

Congestion was first felt in California at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach this year.

“But that congestion has really creeped up the West Coast,” Stambaugh said. In May, Tacoma and Seattle ports, which are often the second stop for ships after they leave Southern California ports, began to see increased congestion, she said.

Now, peak shipping in anticipation of the 2021 holiday season is adding to the problem, she said.

It may not be in time for Christmas, but a new Seattle maritime shipping terminal opens in January. That should alleviate some of the container abundance, Stambaugh said.

“Locally, we have a relief valve come January,” she said.

This story was originally published by The News Tribune.