You’ve seen them stacked six high on cargo ships pulling into port, the multi-colored mosaic of corrugated metal boxes carrying products from the other end of the ocean. Built for seamless transition between ships, trucks and trains, the standard size for these crates of steel or aluminum is usually 20-feet long. Worldwide, there’s the equivalent of 34.5 million at that length.

The container’s best asset is its near-endless reusability, a quality that’s attracted those outside the maritime industry. We at NationSwell have written before about how these boxes revitalized downtown Cleveland by lining empty parking lots with pop-up shops, how a homeless man lived in one while he cleaned up a Southern California beach, and how they could be converted into solar power cubes. Seemingly all-purpose, we decided to look into some of the other surprising ways shipping containers are being (re)used to solve social problems. Here’s three inspiring projects we found:

Urban Agriculture

The United States imported more than $100 billion in food in 2013, the bulk of which is grown overseas in places like China, India, France and Chile. Rather than having our produce shipped to us in a container, two Massachusetts entrepreneurs — Brad McNamara and Jon Friedman — converted the boxes into Freight Farms. Inside their containers, dense stacks of plants and vegetables grow hydroponically, meaning their roots reach into a mineral-rich solution rather than dirt. “Our goal was to create a system that works the same in Alaska as it does in Dallas,” Friedman tells Outside magazine. It’s all controlled by computer — the intensity of the LED grow lights, the water’s pH balance, the density of nutrients released through the irrigation system — so crops can grow year-round. “Each farm is a WiFi-enabled hotspot, so your farm gets put down, it’s plugged in and it’s immediately on the web,” McNamara tells the local public radio station. Using a mobile app, farmers can set alerts and alarms. “So if you’re at home and it’s really cold outside, your farm’s covered in snow, you don’t actually have to leave your house to go check on things,” he adds. Each container can produce the equivalent of one acre’s worth of food.

Commercial Redevelopment

Reclaiming industrial materials is often a go-to for urban redevelopment. On the Jersey Shore, shipping containers that might have once been docked in the Newark Bay ports are being converted into stores and artists studios on the beach. In Asbury Park, N.J., Eddie Catalano sells ice cream; on a boardwalk nearby, another container run by Sari Perlstein offers boutique clothing. “I actually never thought it would be possible to get all the equipment that I need in such a small space,” Catalano tells the local paper. “Lo and behold, six years later, it works. It definitely works.” He says the structures aren’t the “most attractive,” but they’re highly functional. “It handles the elements well, it handles the weather well,” he adds. During Hurricane Sandy, the big box stayed firm on the boardwalk. Perlstein’s brick-and-mortar store, on the other hand, wasn’t spared from the flooding. It’s why she moved her operation into the box on the boardwalk. Now, “if there were a horrific storm we can get a crane and move that thing off. We can take it away,” she says. “That is a plus. Because if it was a building again, you’d just wave it goodbye.”

Homes for the Homeless

Hardy structures, watertight and designed not to rust, shipping containers have been proposed as a solution to our housing crunch. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., the Veterans Housing Development, a recently founded nonprofit, is refurbishing shipping containers into a permanent place for homeless veterans to stay. “Anyone notices and sees homeless veterans on street corners and in tent cities around the Horry County area, and around the country. … I have a passion for this because I hate seeing veterans out there on the streets,” Brad Jordan, a disabled veteran and the nonprofit’s executive director, tells The State. “There’s a lot of funding available for veterans housing, but not a lot of housing available.” The group recently finished their first one-bedroom home and displayed it at a fundraiser. Their ultimate goal is to create a gated village somewhere in town, “a secure and safe environment with programs that are going to assist the veterans,” Jordan adds. “If we build 40 [homes], there would be 40 filled tomorrow. The need is there.”