Table of Contents

Break Bulk Cargo: The Complete Guide

Beginners Guides

Break Bulk Cargo: The Complete Guide

The continuous increase in international trade has triggered the rise of break bulk shipping. Break bulk cargo has made the shipment of certain items easier as it can transport bulkier items that cannot fit inside a standard-sized container. ICE has guides on Break Bulk Packing & Break Bulk Cargo Handling Equipment for those looking for more advanced information.

Below, we’ll provide you with an in-depth guide on what break bulk cargo is, its origin, the types of packaging used, its advantages and its disadvantages.

What is break bulk cargo?

Also known as general cargo, break bulk cargo simply means goods stowed on a general cargo ship in individual units. They are not stored in containers. The term comes from the phrase ‘breaking bulk’, which means to extract a portion of a ship’s cargo.

Goods transported through break bulk are therefore handled ‘piecemeal’ for convenient unloading and loading. Break bulk shipping is very useful in small or underdeveloped ports and offloading to smaller vessels.


How does it differ from bulk cargo?

Bulk cargo and break bulk cargo have been used interchangeably in business operations but they are distinct from one another.

Bulk cargo refers to trades where dry cargoes are loaded directly on the holds of the ships. Examples of these cargoes are grain, iron ore, coal, and other related items.

Break bulk cargo on the other hand refers to the trades where the cargoes are stowed in unitised forms like bags, pallets, drums, crates, and the like. Ships carrying these items are called ‘break bulk’ vessels.

What commodities are intended for break bulk shipping?

The primary factor that determines the type of shipping is the item itself. If the goods for shipment are too bulky to fit inside a container, then you might consider break bulk shipping. Common examples of these items are found below.

  • Rolls of steels
  • Pipes
  • Sacked cargo
  • Barrels and drums
  • Bailed goods
  • Steel girders
  • Manufacturing or construction equipment – Cement equipment, water supply equipment, steelmaking equipment
  • Vehicles – Construction vehicles, road rollers, buses, bulldozers, etc.

What are the different types of packaging used in break bulk cargo?

It is the primary responsibility of the shipper to pack the goods before the break bulk shipment. Choosing the appropriate packaging depends on the nature of the product and its volume. The most common break bulk cargo examples are listed below:

1. Bagged cargo

These are commodities packed in bags or sacks. The commodity carried inside the bags should be robust enough to endure external pressures during the journey.

Examples of commodities packed in bags are sugar, flour, salt, coffee, cement, grain, fertilizer, seed, dried milk, and the like. The bags are usually made of paper, plastic, polypropylene, or open mesh plastic fiber. The important thing here is that the material of the bag is compatible with the commodity and provides protection against contamination.

Handling bagged cargoes must be done properly to avoid tearing of bags. Also, shippers must take extra precautionary measures since bagged cargoes are at risk of loss, theft, or pilferage.


2. Fibreboard boxes and cartons

The use of fibreboard boxes or corrugated boxes is one of the most economical packaging options in break bulk shipping. Aside from being cheap, the cartons are reliable enough to withstand transport hazards and afford decent protection.

The best way to handle cartons in break bulk cargo is using pallets and securely strapping the whole pile to prevent damage and pilferage. This is particularly useful when there are multiple discharges of the goods for further transport until the final destination.

3. Wooden cases and crates

Wooden cargo boxes have been a dependable packaging for decades. Their greatest asset is their formidable wall strength that effectively shields your product. They are pricier than corrugated boxes because of the wood material.

Wooden crates, on the other hand, are constructed in a skeleton-like fashion. This open-type wooden container will suffice for contents that require minimal packing. Skeleton crates are typically used for carrying large machines and equipment.

The wood material used for wooden containers is usually plywood or low-grade timber. Heavy-duty cases or crates are supported with 150mm x 5mm planks inside and outside to strengthen the whole unit. Heavier cases must be stowed at the bottom first.


4. Bales

Commodities shipped through bales include cotton, wool, tobacco, rubber, skins, and similar commodities that can be bundled easily. Hessian is the prevalent material used in the outer cladding of bales although paper and plastic fibers are also being used. If the commodity has a relatively high value, adding a second or third cover might be necessary.

Bales vary widely in shape and size, depending on the type of commodity. Ensure to avoid rupturing the cover or breaking the binding material.


2CF9F39 Cork, Ireland. 4th Sep, 2020. Bails of domestic rubbish, collected by Country Clean, are loaded onto general cargo ship ‘Zeeland’ at the Port of Cork for a voyage to Denmark where the rubbish will be disposed of. The rubbish is exported every 2-3 weeks. Credit: AG News/Alamy Live News

Hand hooks can be used for bales but should be avoided when dealing with high-value goods like furs, skins, and the like. Baled commodities normally don’t get significant damage when rolled or dropped from low heights but dropping bales of rubber can be dangerous because of their bouncing nature.

Bandings used to compress the bale must not be used for lifting, not unless indicated on the marks. Since bales are sensitive to chafes, protect them through matting and dunnage.

5. Drums, barrels, and casks

Drums and casks are the ideal packagings for liquid commodities like chemicals, latex, oils, whisky, molasses, and other related items. Although, they can also be used for transporting powdered and granular commodities. Depending on the commodity transported, proper labeling should be implemented especially on dangerous items.

When handling these types of containers, you must take note of the bilge or the portion with the greatest circumference. This is the area of the container having the least strength against external pressure.


Handling drums involves the use of rope slings, trays, or nets. You can use mechanical equipment to grip the drum’s top rim. Just be careful that the drum doesn’t get punctured while gripping or carrying. Do not use the tines of the forklift to carry the drums as this could result in accidents or spillages.

In stowing drums, their bilge must not support any weight. The top rim of the drums exposed to open air may hold rainwater or frost. This must be tipped out or dried before loading into a container. When discharging drums or casks, do not drag them from a tight stow using slings to avoid possible damage.

6. Shrinkwrapping

Shrinkwrapping is easily confused with stretch wrapping but there’s a world of difference between the two. A stretch wrap refers to a plastic wrap that you stretch around palletized goods to keep the bundle together. On the other hand, a shrink wrap is a plastic wrap that involves the sealing of heat onto the goods, making it appear tight and rigid.

The tight packaging of shrink-wrapped commodities helps to give it an airtight seal, preventing ingress of substances that cause contamination.

For small items, you can use heat guns to shrink wrap the products but for large or bulky items, the business must consider acquiring a tunnel-style shrink wrap machine.


7. Lift vans

Lift vans are wooden shipping crates that are particularly useful when transporting household goods like furniture and possessions, whether domestic or international. The standard size of a lift van is 87 inches x 87 inches x 48 inches.

8. Corrosion preservation

Sea Freight cargos are heavily exposed to the sea and wind, making humidity and corrosion the enemies to watch out for. The best way to preserve the machine is to vacuum-seal it. Air is drawn out of the polythene, preserving the machine’s quality for as long as one year. For other packaging types, silica gel will suffice.

9. Special cargo

Certain cargoes require special packaging apart from the conventional types due to the nature of the commodity. Examples are beer, wine, jewelry, electronic equipment, and other similar items.

What are the benefits of break bulk shipping?

There are many benefits of break bulk shipping, some of which we will outline below.


✓ It can accommodate heavy and bulky items that exceed container capacity

If goods are complicated when broken down into components, you can send the whole assembly using break bulk shipment. A general cargo ship has high-capacity deck cranes and handling equipment that can carry heavy goods.

✓ It can reduce deconsolidation and reconsolidation of shipments

If you have an oversized cargo, it doesn’t have to be deconstructed into pieces. With break bulk shipping, you can save expenses through a consolidated shipment and a faster reconsolidation process.

✓ It can be accommodated in smaller ports

Breakbulk shipping allows delivery of your shipment to smaller ports without requiring much deconsolidation or reconsolidation. Most of the ports can’t receive large shipments.

The handling equipment is already available on your ship, making unloading convenient and saving time in transportation.

✓ It can be shipped separately

You won’t have to ship your goods in separate containers when employing breakbulk. Oversized items can easily be loaded by special equipment like crates.

What are the disadvantages of break bulk shipping?

1.      More expensive than container shipments

Oversized freight tends to occupy more space than goods stowed or piled. Labor cost is also higher in break bulk shipping compared to container shipments. Aside from this, the ships and ports need special equipment to handle break bulk cargo. That’s why break bulk cargo rates may be greater than what you’d expect.

2.      Not suitable for food items

Certain food items strictly require temperature control, which is more feasible in containerisation than it is in break bulk cargo.

3.      More prone to product damage or pilferage

Since goods are stowed in bags, bundles, barrels, and similar units, there’s a higher chance of breakages and these items getting stolen.

4.      More labor-intensive and time-consuming

Since goods are unitized, it involves a greater amount of labor and entails longer loading and unloading times.

What shipping vessels are used to break bulk cargo?

The different break bulk cargo vessels include:

  1. Tramp ships
  2. Barge carriers
  3. Container ships
  4. Forest product carrier
  5. Project carriers
  6. Conventional reefer ships
  7. Roll-on and roll-off vessels (RoRo)

Key considerations in break bulk cargo

Close coordination and planning

When deploying shipments through break-bulk cargo, the greatest challenge is maintaining consistent coordination. The success of the shipment depends on efficient loading and loading activities, optimal use of break bulk fleet, specialised warehouses, and experienced freight forwarders.

Air tight packaging

Individual packages must be properly sealed to prevent leaking and contamination of contents with external air. Moisture could enter the packaging and affect the content’s quality.

Use quality packaging

To save costs, many shippers use cheap packaging, which leads to product damage. Products with mediocre packaging can pose a safety hazard during the loading and unloading of goods.

To protect the goods shipped, it’s vital to select packages suitable for the goods and affords high security.

Learn more about Break Bulk Shipment Packaging here

Consult with manufacturer

Know the items you will be shipping and ask the manufacturer about the appropriate packaging that can afford adequate protection to the product.

What is the break-of-bulk point?

In the world of logistics and supply chains, the break-of-bulk point refers to the location where the goods are transferred from one mode of transport to another. The typical break-of-bulk points are airports and seaports.

It is essential to know the break-of-bulk points of your shipments so you’ll have a good grasp on your good condition during the journey to its destination.

Get a professional freight forwarder to assist in bulk cargo services

Many will say that break bulk cargo is a thing of the past but it remains a crucial component in the international supply chain and logistics.

It’s not just a go-to option when containerisation won’t work. It has its own set of benefits that you can maximize if you truly understand when it applies to your shipment.

Get in touch with our professional freight forwarders here at International Cargo Express to understand more about break bulk cargo and how it can help with your shipment.

Request A Quote

or call us on 1300 227 461

Recommended For You

we consult. we plan. we deliver. footer image

We Consult. We Plan. We Deliver.

  • CONSULT – We discuss your specific needs.
  • PLAN – We develop a bespoke tailored plan that is cost-effective & efficient.
  • DELIVER – We manage your shipment and keep you updated from beginning to end.