Sea containers: Urban blight or valuable resource?

After a sea container has had five to 10 years of strenuous use on the high seas, they are forced to retire to their second career. The environmental 6R rule (refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, repurpose, recycle) tells us to repurpose sea containers rather than recycle them as scrap steel.

Most municipalities slept or pondered urban sea containers for decades while citizens repurposed them; affordable housing being one such use. In 2011, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported 40.4 per cent (1.55 million) Canadian families had substandard housing (i.e. unaffordable, major repairs needed, or unsuitable for family size). Ontario’s average is similar, but remote, rural and northern regions are significantly worse.

Traditional housing (i.e. concrete foundation, 2″x 4″ walls, siding, shingles, etc.) costs between $130 and $250 per sq. ft., plus the cost of a serviced lot; unaffordable for someone on Ontario Works, disability pension, low-income cut-off (LICO) poverty line, full-time minimum wage, and the working poor. Alternatively, starting with a sea container as a home’s outer shell at 25 per cent of traditional costs, housing is affordable for everybody.

Excellent municipalities deliver sustainable services at minimum cost. This challenging goal is aided by sea containers. However, if someone buys a sea container for home or work, neighbours might complain and the municipality investigates. If a sea container isn’t on concrete foundations, it’s not a permanent structure, a building, Municipal Property Assessment Corporation-assessed, or property-taxed.

Mediocre municipalities think sea containers are a loophole in their quest for maximum tax revenue and maximum spending. Special interest groups (i.e. home and apartment builders, U-store developers and others) sometimes conspire with mediocre municipalities to ban sea containers. If banned, the next best alternative will likely benefit a special interest group.

Will a banning bylaw work? If a banning bylaw is passed, the sea container(s) that prompted the complaint(s) will likely be exempt from the ban. Exempting them means neighbours who complained get no relief. The ban will frustrate people who might need a sea container in the future. The ban will upset most citizens, the community becomes polarized, and only special interest groups benefit. A ban steals from citizens their right for affordable housing and their right of choice. A ban may force citizens to build 10′ x 12′ garden sheds for home storage, which are also exempt from property taxes.

Today, repurposed sea containers are everywhere. A ban now is too late to eradicate them or stop their further spread. So, rather than a stick, how about a carrot? Embracing sea containers can enable affordable housing, farming, construction, million dollar homes, secure storage, hydroponic gardens, fish farms and hundreds of other uses.

Municipalities can offer small monetary prizes for innovative repurposing. Local jobs and creativity are encouraged. Repurposed sea containers can be exported all over North America to the eager customers of these budding entrepreneurs.

Fear of sea container blight can be transformed into prosperity for all.


Glenn Black, P.Eng., Providence Bay, ON

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