Shortage of sea containers sends cotton industry ‘back to the future’

The Australian cotton industry is about to experience a blast from the past, with more than 100,000 bales exported to Turkey next month via general cargo shipments.

Like most goods in the world that are exported by sea, cotton is normally put in sea containers.

But due to a worldwide shortage of containers and general problems surrounding ocean freight logistics, exporters have been looking for alternatives.

“We have a record crop for cotton, we have the market crying out for our high quality cotton, so Australian cotton shippers are looking for other ways to get our crop to market,” Cotton Australia Chief Executive Adam Kay said.

“One of the options that will be implemented is the use of general cargo, so the bales are loaded from the dock, directly into a ship’s hold – which is how cotton is exported.”

A truck with shipping containers waiting to be unloaded at a container terminal
Like the vast majority of commodities, Australian cotton is mostly exported by sea in shipping containers.Reuters: Amir Cohen

Back to the future

The first shipment of ginned cotton to Australia took place over 100 years ago.

The bales from Queensland were loaded onto the SS Westmorland in July 1921, bound for England.

“So the company does this” [shipment to Turkey] uses a hospital grade vessel, which has been used for wood pulp in the past.

“It’s a vessel with a gantry crane system on it that can lift these bales of cotton from the dock and into the hold efficiently and in a way that won’t damage the cotton.”

Mr Kay said the industry cannot remember the last time the cotton shipping method was used.

a black and white photo of a cart with loads of cotton.
Cotton is unloaded in 1921 at a new gin in Brisbane.Supplied: Cotton Australia

Expanding Markets

A few years ago, China bought about 70 percent of Australia’s cotton crop.

Then, in October 2020, the Chinese government began telling factories to stop buying Australian cotton or risk having their quotas cut.

Mr Kay said the industry has been working hard to find new markets and expand existing markets such as Turkey.

“I think they found it difficult to get ships and containers to the Mediterranean and that’s why this is” [break bulk] option is now being explored.”

Australia is on track to produce a record 5.5 million bales this year.

Like most commodities, the price of cotton has fallen in recent weeks and is currently estimated to be around $770 per bale.

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