Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Putting a surplus to use


Q1:   What is piled high in sea ports and rail heads around the world?

Q2:  What is one of the biggest problems in developing countries?

A1:  Containers. 20-foot containers. 40-foot containers.

A2:  Housing; low cost, functional housing for people, schools, hospitals, manufacturing, and more.

What's the connection?

Simple - move the containers stacked in ports around the world - including every major port in the U.S. - to places in need of facilities of all types.

HAITI - Devastated by an earthquake more than a year ago, thousands of Haitians remain homeless. Schools and hospitals are rubble.

This country is pathetically poor; according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID, the annual per capita income of less than $400. "Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere," according to USAID (http://www.usaid.gov/policy/budget/cbj2004/latin_america_caribbean/haiti.pdf).

Of course Haiti is not the only country that could put containers to good use.

Refugees in the Sudan - Darfur - could be housed, educated, and provided medical care in modified containers. There are a number of companies in the U.S. that convert containers to housing - that's housing in generic terms; housing for people, for students, for patients, for offices and factories, perhaps even jails. For a small, albeit impressive, sample of container use, go to http://tinyurl.com/lk8w9w.

The "campus," below, was built of containers by Mobile Modular Management Corporation (http://www.mobilemodularrents.com/).



According to its Web site, Mobile Modular "currently serves Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington D.C."

Imagine clearing out empty containers taking up space at Gulf ports and at the same time generating a great deal of good will for the United States. If anyone wants to be assured that the folks who will use the converted units know they are a gift of the people of the United States, paint the units in red, white, and blue motifs.

Most countries have a sea port that can handle container ships. Those that don't, such as Darfur, and those that need containers inland, usually have rail lines; worst case, containers can be trucked overland. Darfur's situation is almost unique in that it is landlocked and surrounded by people not particularly friendly to the area.

We're not talking about making people live in 10 foot by 20 foot or 40 foot boxes.

Units are adapted to provide large, multi-floor facilities to meet a variety of needs.

The photo below shows a three-story facility being assembled by Germany's Container Lion (http://www.container-lion.com/en/container-raumcontainer-buerocontainer.php).



When I worked for Zim, a shipping company that carts containers around the world, I was told that it wasn't worth returning empty containers to their ports of origin. Because of economics, many ports, certainly the major U.S. ports, have containers stacked up 4, 5, or more levels high. If they are used at all, it is by local homeless who manage to sneak by security.

(Yes, Virginia, the U.S., too, could benefit by converting unused containers to dwellings, even if only as barracks and shelters.)

How much does it cost to convert containers into a different function? I imagine it depends on the function and the volume of containers to be converted; there usually are "advantages of scale."

It seems it would be a win-win situation.

The surplus containers would be reduced at the ports; companies would have work converting the units, shipping companies - are there any American flag carriers? - could carry the converted containers to their destinations, and people in need of the facilities would have a rood over their head. Locally, we could create "container towns" where people could receive the services they need to become taxpaying citizens again.

Who would pay for all this?

The taxpayer.

But consider, the taxpayer already is paying for refugee facilities and getting nothing in return. If American companies modify the containers, taxes will be paid by the companies and the companies' employees; shippers will be paid to move the containers and again, taxes will be paid. At least this way, the taxpayer is getting SOME return on his or her tax dollar and the folks who will use the modified containers will have a constant reminder of this nation's help.

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