Recycled Shipping Containers are Doing the World Good

Recycling is probably the most visible movement of our emerging green society, but one “recyclable” rapidly growing in popularity was staring us in the face for decades before we realized its potential. Most of us have seen the steel shipping containers that house merchandise and materials on ships and freight trains, but very likely never thought twice about them. And that was the problem.

Since the 1950s, when they came into widespread use, the worldwide population of these containers has grown to around 17 million, which would seem sufficient for decades of future needs. But many of them sit dormant, because it costs less to manufacture new ones than it does to retrieve used ones from often-distant locations.
These sturdy, weather and wear-resistant containers have a useful life of 15 years or more, and since they contain durable resources that could be put to far better use, which is precisely what far-sighted entrepreneurial folks are now doing.

Here are just a few of the startlingly logical and inventive ways in which steel shipping containers are finding useful second lives:



With the price of decent housing so far beyond the reach of so many people, reconfigured shipping containers present an affordable, viable alternative to homelessness.

Their steel structure is sturdy and weather-resistant, and they can easily be outfitted with plumbing and electricity, doors, windows, flooring and other amenities. A single container can serve as a small home, and additional units can be combined for larger single-family homes or even stacked to create modular apartment buildings.


Field business operations, such as mines and pipelines, pose the question of how and where to house on-site employees. Reconfigured shipping containers provide an easy and affordable answer.
As with residential use, employee shipping container housing provides portability, durability, expandability, comfort and numerous design options. They can also be utilized as on-site kitchens, dining rooms and conference rooms.


Join together the imagination of small children and the possibilities of steel shipping containers and you have a perfect combination for a small preschool or nursery school.

Shipping container schools work because they have as much room to grow as young minds. There are hundreds of ways to design, redesign, transform and customize the spaces in ways that will keep young, inquiring minds fascinated and inspired.


Children can play for hours with an empty cardboard box, so imagine the fun they can have with a portable, mutable playground made with recycled shipping containers. They can be used individually for a myriad of activities or combined to create a central activity area or classroom. You might see them in public parks, used as covered eating areas, vending stands or even restrooms; their outside walls are even, on occasion, a canvas for aspiring muralists.


Recycled shipping containers are being used increasingly around the world as unique retail facilities, from small shops to multi-level shopping centers or malls. Lacking only elevators or escalators to differentiate them from traditional retail spaces, the construction savings of up to 80% certainly rises above those conveniences.
This movement is not restricted to low-budget needs, though. Such green-minded corporations as Starbuck’s and Puma have also opened outlets fashioned from shipping containers; rather than spending the time, money and resources for new construction.


Artists and sculptors are notable for the endlessly inventive ways they can find and shape their materials. It was only a matter of time before they discovered recycled shipping containers.

The containers have been stacked, twisted, painted and otherwise pressed into service as art for such public spaces as beaches and shopping centers. They also make excellent studios and traveling museums or exhibition spaces, allowing art to go directly to the people.

About the Author

Author Cherrell Tarantino is a freelance writer and advocate of environmental innovations, such as recycled or reclaimed portable storage containers. Whether this article has you thinking about containers for rent or purchase, you’ll find their many uses inspiring.

Photo credits:

Christchurch Shopping Mall:
Jones-Glotfelty House: