Instead of boxes: growing demand for perishables a favourable condition for reefer ships

2022/03/22 at 1:19 PM

The stable growth of the cold chain segment has been observing in the Port of Antwerp for the past few years. This impacts on annual volumes of the reefer containers handled in the harbour. Moreover, this creates favourable conditions for reefer ships, whose importance will strengthen in the coming years. In which way?

The Port of Antwerp, the second-largest container harbour in Europe, has been setting the record volumes in handling reefer boxes. For the second year in a row, the figure is above 1 million TEU. In 2021, the maritime terminals increased the number of reefer containers by 2.7 per cent compared to the previous year. According to the port authority, the 2021 growth was mainly stimulated by export temperature-controlled freight, which showed an increase of 6 per cent. Moreover, the export temperature-sensitive goods still prevail in the container traffic in Antwerp. Last year, they comprise around 60 per cent of the export containers handled in the Port of Antwerp.

Baltic Jasmie reefer ship, source: Wikimedia Commons

Chance for reefer ships

Despite the share of reefer container volumes (in TEU) in Port of Antwerp’s total box traffic slightly exceeds 8 per cent, the Belgian harbour is paying particular attention to the cold chain segment. Starting from 2014, the Port of Antwerp has been playing a key role in moving bananas between Ecuador and Europe. Currently, most of the mentioned fruits, like many other types of temperature-sensitive goods, are delivered to Belgium in reefer boxes.

However, it can be drastically changed in the coming years and the cold chain to and via the Port of Antwerp will include the more active usage of conventional reefer ships. Before the coronavirus outbreak, this type of vessel was popular in moving temperature-controlled freight to the Belgian port. The pandemic caused a huge decrease in shipments with conventional reefer vessels. Meanwhile, the gradual growth of the demand for the deliveries of this kind was recorded in the past two years.

“The current fleet of conventional reefer ships was competed out of the market before the health crisis because of their high bunker costs. However, this type of vessel fits perfectly within the current system of refrigerated storage and cross-docking. Since these vessels can be loaded and unloaded quickly and the infrastructure lends itself to it, a new and environmentally friendly generation of conventional reefer vessels could once again play a significant role in the future,” the Perishables Expertise Group recently stated. The association consists of professionals from several logistics companies involved in developing the cold chain segment in the Port of Antwerp. Among them are Remant Cool Logistics, DP World, Foodcareplus, Hapag-Lloyd, Seafrigo, Luik Natie, PSA Cargo Solutions, IDP, Eurofruitports, MSC and Sea invest.

Reefer containers in Port of Antwerp, source: Port of Antwerp Authority

Further development of cold chain

As the Perishables Expertise Group considers, the cold chain segment will continue to grow in the Port of Antwerp. The main reason is human eating habits. “Meal boxes with fresh produce are becoming increasingly popular. Moreover, supermarkets are exploring ways they can deliver fresh groceries to the customers’ homes. This phenomenon is already popular in the United Kingdom and is expected to blow over to Belgium. Many consumers are consciously choosing a plant-based diet and are looking for an expanded range of fruits, vegetables and meat substitutes. Preferably all year round,” the experts noted.

Another factor that will impact the cold chain in the coming years is the IMO 2023 strategy. Its main focus is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping. This will require some measures from the sector. First, it has to reduce energy consumption and, second, to implement new technologies to keep the necessary level of temperature. “Using only renewable energy is not enough. The industry must invest to be able to store this energy as well. By storing residual energy in a battery, you can use it at peak times. You can monitor how much wind and solar energy is coming in and compare it to how much your business is using,” the Perishables Expertise Group concluded.

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