Nothing has transformed our economy quite like containerized shipping.
From Rotterdam to Singapore, we see tangible evidence of the world’s bustling maritime shipping network as cranes load and unload uniform containers in a flurry of activity. The efficiency of this system has massively impacted the global economy, but this uniformity has also had the unintended consequence of anonymizing shipping. From the outside looking in, there’s no indication of who’s actually doing the shipping.
Today’s graphic, using data from JOC, highlights the actual companies behind the United States’ import–export numbers.
Outgoing: Recyclables and Raw Materials
While companies like Procter & Gamble and Caterpillar export a high volume of consumer goods and equipment, the export market is dominated by bulk materials, natural resources, and chemicals.
Here are the top 20 companies by export volume (20-foot equivalent units, or TEUs):
Note: TEU = Twenty-foot equivalent unit, a measure of volume in units of twenty-foot long shipping containers.
Though exporters of recyclable materials feature prominently on this list, there may be a shake-up coming in the near future.
China’s Recycling Diet
In Western countries, people often assume that their top export by volume is a high-value manufactured good or, at very least, a natural resource like timber or oil. The truth is, a sizable portion of exports from Western countries are waste materials.
This isn’t a new trend. In 2009, nine of the top 20 exporters in the U.S. were sending recyclable materials overseas – particularly to China.
This convenient trade relationship, where ships bring consumer goods to America and return filled with recyclable materials, is being disrupted in a big way. In 2018, China launched Operation National Sword, which could potentially tie a knot in the steady pipeline of waste materials being imported into the country.
For now, countries like Vietnam and Thailand have picked up some of the slack, but before long, Western countries will need to take a serious look at beefing up domestic recycling programs.
Incoming: The Stuff We Buy
On the other end of the equation are the consumer goods that get purchased every day.
In modern society, there’s a very good chance the items around you right now were not built in the country you live in. While many companies import goods from overseas, a few major players move a staggering volume of goods through America’s ports.
Here are the top 20 companies by import volume (TEUs):
In contrast to the top exporters list, the top importing companies are generally more recognizable names, such as Target, Home Depot, Dollar Tree, and Ikea.
It will come as no surprise that Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer by some margin, is also America’s top importer. In a single year, Walmart’s incoming goods would equate to nearly 50 of the industry’s largest fully-loaded cargo ships.