Old shipping containers renew hopes, dreams
Visiting Ghana a few years ago, Kevin Lee’s eye was captured by some unusual kiosks. Local vendors had cut windows and doors into abandoned shipping containers, and turned them into storefronts.
“Clothiers, butchers, hairdressers — each day families went into the container they rented to ply their trade,” recalls Lee, executive director of Scadding Court Community Centre in Toronto.
Lee returned home to the huge, deserted sidewalks surrounding his downtown community centre and had an epiphany. He called up Storstac, a company that up-cycles shipping containers, and had two retrofitted containers plonked down outside the centre on Dundas Street.
He then invited neighbourhood entrepreneurs who couldn’t afford a brick-and-mortar Toronto storefront to set up shop in the containers for less than $25 a day.
Seven years and 15 containers later, Scadding Court’s Market 707 is home to 23 businesses, many owned by new Canadians and refugees, in a thriving neighbourhood hub.
Market 707 is a creative new lease on life for these ubiquitous giant containers that might otherwise have gone to waste.
There are more than 17 million shipping containers around the world, bringing us avocados from Mexico and smartphones from China. Unfortunately, the wandering crates rarely return home. It’s cheaper for manufacturers to build new containers for their goods than to send back old ones. Megatonnes of metal wind up rusting in dockyards.
Like the vendors of Ghana, entrepreneurs are using shipping containers like huge Lego blocks. They can become anything.
Retired from the sea, these crates also have found new life as libraries and computer labs in developing communities, and classrooms in refugee camps.
While Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, Texas, one local farmer’s vegetable crop was able to withstand the blow because it was a hydroponic farm in a box, made by Boston-based Freight Farms.
Container homes have been a fad for years now, and not just for eccentric hipsters. Community organizations such as Vancouver’s Atira Women’s Resource Centre have found them a less-expensive option for social housing for marginalized and abused women.
Clinic in a Can, in Wichita, Kan., turns old containers into mobile doctor’s offices, medical labs and even fully-equipped surgical units. The pods can be quickly deployed to natural disaster zones. Stick a bunch together and you have an instant hospital.
But aspiring container entrepreneurs beware: it’s not easy buying one and moving in.
Many containers have been treated with lead paint or harmful chemicals and must be cleaned. You’ll need doors, windows, insulation, and special equipment for certain uses. Up-cycling a container for stores, like in Market 707, can cost $20,000 to $30,000, says Storstac founder Anthony Ruggiero. But it can be worth the investment. Even charging incredibly low rent, the Market 707 containers paid for themselves in just three years, Lee tells us. And they’re creating economic opportunity in the community while generating revenue that funds Scadding Court’s recreation and after-school programs.
Mountains of old, rusted shipping containers are a monument to our insatiable desire for consumer goods and foods from abroad. Reincarnation means these metal boxes don’t go to waste.