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Difference Between Bulk Cargo and Break Bulk Cargo

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a tanker being loaded at port

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Difference Between Bulk Cargo and Break Bulk Cargo

Although bulk cargo and break bulk cargo sound similar, they are two completely different methods of shipping cargo. Each type requires a suitable vessel and corresponding infrastructure.

Bulk cargo generally refers to large quantities of product loaded loose and directly onto the transport vessel, without packaging. In contrast, break bulk cargo refers to individually packaged items (boxes, drums, crates) loaded onto ships without being stored in a larger container, such as the standard intermodal container.

A bulk carrier hold being filled with corn

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Types of Bulk Cargo

Shipping professionals divide bulk cargo into two categories: Solid and liquid.

Solid Bulk Cargo

Typically, solid bulk cargo is loaded into a dedicated bulk cargo vessel known as a bulk carrier. These ships possess multiple integrated containers called cargo holds, explicitly designed to transport solid bulk. A bulk carrier’s cargo holds are equipped with large doors called cargo hatches, which gave birth to the expression “batten down the hatches, ” meaning you should prepare for bad weather.

Examples of solid bulk cargo products include coal, grain, rock salt, sugar, ores, corn, minerals, fertilizers, or cement. They are loaded into ships using conveyors, derricks, cranes, either directly mounted onto the vessel or available at specialized ports.

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Liquid Bulk Cargo

Transporting liquid bulk cargo requires specialized vessels with integrated tanks, simply known as tankers or tankships.

Most such vessels possess their own loading and unloading equipment, and the cargo they transport is further subdivided into more categories, depending on their edibility and hazard levels.

  • Hazardous liquids: Includes various oils, petroleum products, and dangerous chemicals in liquid form, such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). 
  • Non-hazardous, non-edible liquids: Examples include cooking oils, raw milk, glycerine, dyes, and generally anything that is not edible or safe for human consumption but isn’t dangerous to the environment.
  • Edible liquids: Examples include wines, juices, processed milk, and many other types of liquids that are safe to consume.

several stacks of cargo in wooden cases at a warehouse

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How Break Bulk Cargo Differs From Bulk Cargo

The primary difference between bulk and break bulk cargo is the presence of individual packaging. Break bulk cargo is divided into individual units that can be handled, stored, and transported more conveniently. Examples of packaging units employed in break bulk cargo include bags, hazmat boxes, crates, pallets, and many others.

Liquid break bulk cargo typically employs shipping barrels and drums. They may be individually transported into the ship by hand or palletized and loaded and unloaded via forklift and other dedicated pallet moving equipment.

Transporting break bulk cargo does not require specialized vessels with dedicated holds or tanks. Any cargo ship that can safely transport these packaging types can transport break bulk cargo, even if packaged into non-standard containers, such as custom shipping boxes.

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Historical Context

Break bulk cargo transportation by sea was the primary shipping method from the dawn of the maritime industry to the 19th century. Barrels, casks, crates, and other wooden containers were the dominant container units for hundreds of years. Each container had to be loaded and unloaded individually into ship holds and storage areas to maximize the available space.

The expression “breaking bulk” originally meant “begin the unloading process,” in the sense that ship and port personnel broke the cargo into smaller quantities for unloading.

Although individual packaging made it easier and more convenient to transport specific types of goods than unpackaged bulk, ships were forced to wait significant amounts of time during the loading and unloading process, keeping them anchored at a port for extended periods.

Starting in the 1830s, one of the primary effects of the ongoing Industrial Revolution was the rapid adoption of railroads to transport goods by land. Over the following decades, some of the most advanced nations independently developed early forms of shipping containers, using mixtures of wood and steel.

However, it wasn’t until 1956 that Malcolm McLean invented the first shipping container, originally designed to optimize the efficiency of his truck transportation company. 

Rather than use an odd number of non-standardized boxes and crates, each truck would carry a single container filled with packaged products. These containers were large, sturdy, and resistant to the elements, making them suitable for transportation by land and sea.

Bulk Cargo and Break Bulk Cargo Shipping Today

Statisticians estimate that 80% of all goods worldwide are transported by sea and that containers account for 60% of all seaborne transportation. Despite these numbers, transportation of bulk and break bulk cargo has not disappeared entirely yet.

Many types of bulk cargo continue to be transported with dedicated ships out of necessity, as they are unsuitable for shipping in containers.

Break bulk cargo shipping is still prevalent in many parts of the world, mainly in ports that do not have the space or technology needed to load and unload containers. It is also the only practical form of goods transportation for smaller vessels that do not have the size or load capacity to support many containers.

Air Sea Containers, Your Packaging Partner

Air Sea Containers offers a wide array of shipping boxes, drums, barrels, totes, IBCs, and other packaging solutions. Many of our products are food-grade, UN-rated, and suitable for transporting hazardous materials. If you have any questions or need more information about our products, contact us today.


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