business design transport

Maersk’s recyclable ships

Maersk_triple_eMaersk are a Danish shipping company with a fleet of over 6oo container ships. They’re a major enterprise, and they are dependent on two commodities that have seen steeply rising prices in recent years – oil and steel. They know that reducing that dependency will give them a competitive edge as well as making them more sustainable, and they have been experimenting. At the moment they’re working on recyclable ships that can be dismantled and re-used.

Shouldn’t all container ships be essentially recyclable, you might be asking, since they’re 98% steel? Yes, decommissioned ships can be taken apart at a breakers yard, but not very efficiently. A ship will contain a range of grades of steel. Since they aren’t necessarily marked, it all tends to get melted down together and recycled as low-grade metal.

To address this problem and help secure cheaper steel in the future, Maersk are currently building their new ships with reuse in mind from the start. They’re called the Triple E, with the first of 20 due to be launched in June. They come with a ‘Cradle to Cradle Passport’, a huge database of materials and information about all the different components, so that it can all be dismantled with greater precision in 30 years’ time. With 60,000 tonnes of steel in each one, there’s a considerable saving to be made by sorting the grades properly.

This may sound like a fairly niche idea, but it’s the kind of circular economy thinking that every future-facing company needs to start taking on board. Working out how to reuse materials intelligently will make Maersk more resilient to global steel prices, create an alternative revenue stream from high quality scrap, and ease pressure on the environment by reducing the demand for mined iron ore.

Of course, an initiative like this is just one step in a long journey towards sustainability, especially for an international shipping company with a subsidiary arm in the oil business. But it’s about the mindset, about recognising that the world is changing and we need to adapt. Maersk have much to do, but they’re making a start. They set a target to reduce their CO2 emissions per container by 25% by 2020, but they did it by 2012 and have raised the target to 40%.  The new Triple E series, which will be the largest container ships ever built, will produce 50% less CO2 per container than the average, largely through slower speeds and higher capacity.

This is all good work – and here’s hoping they go all the way and pioneer a properly sustainable container ship sooner rather than later.


  1. I’m sure Maersk will build a ‘properly sustainable container ship’ when it is worth their while. The key point here is getting a higher scrap price for the ship at the end of its life. You would never actually be able to dismantle a ship, send the different bits to a mini mill and get back the same atoms of steel to make a new ship unless you had a steel mill just for that purpose (which would be a pointless and costly extravagance). That is different from sending out 100 tonnes of ship shaped high grade steel and getting back 100 tonnes of flat.

    This works for Maersk because they run their ships for the whole of their life, it doesn’t work for ships that are likely to change hands since the cost is on the initial buyer while the benefit is to the final owner.

    I’m also assuming you don’t think ships should steam more slowly though the Red Sea to save CO2?

    1. If I were passing through the Red Sea, I’d put my foot down.

      Not sure that the benefits are only to the initial owner – if you know it can be dismantled for higher value scrap, that would just be reflected in the price you’d pay. You’d pay a little more for one of these than for a different secondhand vessel, and the original owner would recoup their costs. It’s also worth mentioning that Maersk don’t expect to be the only people who do this – they think it will eventually change the way that shipbreakers operate.

      1. The key to this would be getting it to be a standard in the ship building industry. Get China and South Korea to do it as matter of course, including the details in the handover documents. As long as there aren’t any major refits (or the metals added/moved are documented) then it should feed through the life cycle.

        Whether the owner could recoup the extra costs on sale would depend on if that premium would carry through its entire cycle of sale and resale. Ships often have many owners so it would be a while until the extra cost is regained in scrap value (and that would depend on it being broken by a scrappie with the skills to separate the different steels).

        It is a good idea and Maersk are to be applauded but it is really about the bottom line.

        1. It’s actually being built by Daewoo, so the South Koreans are already involved. The contract is worth $3.8 billion, so I’d guess the initial work of constructing a database of components is actually pretty minimal when you put it in context, especially since they’re ordered 20 at once and spread the cost.

          And yes, it’s all about the bottom line, but the key is to be smart about your energy and materials use so that you save money and reduce ecological impact together. Not always possible of course, but the circular economy principles are often a win for both business and the environment.

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