'Sweeper ships' collect empty containers to ease port congestion

19 November 2021

The Port of Los Angeles is deploying eight “sweeper ships” to pick up empty containers and clear space to ease bottlenecks.  

Six ships have so far collected 17,500 empty containers and another two will be utilised to collect around 2,500 each, said executive director of the port Gene Seroka. 

He said the plan was easing the situation, but added: “We’ve got to do a lot better job than that.

“We’ve got about 65,000 empty container units sitting on the docks right now, that’s up from about 55,000 from just a couple of Friday’s ago.”

The port receives around 350,000 empty containers each month that need returning to Asia, up 30% on a year ago. 

Seroka said there had been a 25% drop in the number of import containers in the docks since 24 October, from 95,000 containers to 71,000, and the number dwelling for more than nine days had fallen 29% in the past three weeks.

About 40% of all imported goods enter the United States through the ports of LA and Long Beach, which have been hit by heavy bottlenecks due to supply chain issues triggered by Covid-19.

The Biden administration last month announced a series of measures to help ease congestion, including announcing 24/7 operations at the California ports. 

However, the plan has yet to materialise, and Seroka explained: “It's an effort to try to get this entire orchestra of supply chain players to get on the same calendar. We've had very few takers to date. But there are some hurdles that we have to overcome.”

He said there were limitations preventing 24/7 operations, including legal limits on truck drivers’ hours and labour shortages across drivers and warehousing staff. 

He pointed to how there are around 400,000 warehouse jobs open across the US and about 8,000 alone in southern California. He noted estimates from American Truckers Associations which says the country has a shortfall of 80,000 drivers. 

Seroka said: “We're going to try to squeeze every hour, every shift worth of efficiency that we can out of the port complex. It will take time to understand that, but there are pockets of opportunity here for us really to raise the bar.”

Transport secretary Pete Buttigieg said switching to 24/7 operations was just a “first step” and it wasn’t just a case of “flipping the switch”. 

He said tackling the country’s supply chains would require a “silver buckshot” rather than a “silver bullet”. 

“As so many of us know, decades of under-investment in our supply chain infrastructure, combined with unprecedented consumer demand ... and of course, a global pandemic, are all combining to put our supply chains to the test,” Buttigieg said.

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