Shipping containers are increasingly ‘upcycled’ as buildings. © Alamy Stock Photo
Shipping containers are increasingly ‘upcycled’ as buildings. © Alamy Stock Photo

Case study: Recycling for revenue at Maersk

9 June 2017

Setting up a separate company gave Maersk Line’s used shipping containers a new lease of life

After nearly 20 years of service and having travelled around the world hundreds of times, shipping containers are being reinvented into trendy houses and restaurants, as well as being rehomed in theme parks, hospitals and prisons.

Not only is this recycling approach kinder to the environment, it’s also a promising revenue stream for shipping company Maersk Line, part of Danish conglomerate AP Moller Maersk A/S. It has 2.7 million shipping containers moving manufactured goods in use worldwide, each costing around $2,000 to $3,000.

When a container reaches the end of its shipping life after 18 years, Maersk Line sells them to avoid storage costs. Around 95% of its boxes are resold for reuse or repurpose. Last year, the company sold 70,000 old containers for approximately $1,000 to $1,300 each.

Selling used containers isn’t a new phenomenon for Maersk Line. Up until 2015, it was outsourcing container sales to third-party companies. However, it realised that there was an opportunity to make a better profit by bringing the sales in house, and so the ‘container sales team’ was created. They sell on the used containers to end-users all over the world, via an online shop. In the second quarter of 2016, the team sold more than the third-party agents had managed in their best year.

Rune Sørensen, managing director of Maersk Line Container Sales, said the trend for refurbishing boxes for a wide variety of purposes has grown significantly. Building with containers can be 40% faster and 20% cheaper than using traditional building materials, according to industry executives.

“The containers can sustain 100 tonnes of pressure. If you are building a house, for example, it is a very good building block to have,” Sørensen adds.

Maersk Line has a goal to reduce CO2 emissions from its shipping by 60% by 2020. Used container sales are part of its commitment to protect the environment.

The 5% of containers that are too worn or damaged are scrapped. “It’s quite significant how many of the boxes are used for something else or refurbished,” says Sørensen.

 “Seeing our assets get a new life – whether it’s a house, a swimming pool, hospital or refurbished and put back in to storage – is a great pleasure for us.”

Setting up a new business was challenging, especially in the beginning. The team had to quickly learn that selling a product is very different when compared to selling a service. They had to approach the business from a fresh perspective.

But business is booming, and the team remains optimistic about the future. “Our market is growing, I don’t see it dropping any time soon,” says Sørensen. “There’s an ever-increasing recycling mentality. There’s no telling where our current boxes might one day find themselves.”

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Maersk Line


  • The company was established in 1928 and its container sales division was set up in 2015 
  • Maersk Line employs 33,000 staff in 306 offices across 114 countries 
  • It has served 59,000 customers, shipping to 343 ports worldwide
  • Danish owner Maersk A/S employs more than 88,000 people in more than 130 countries 
  • It delivered revenue of $40.3 billion in 2015
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