Difference between Bulk and Break Bulk Cargo

Difference between Bulk and Break Bulk Cargo: The Ultimate FAQ Guide

If you’re wondering what bulk and break bulk cargo is, you will find all information right here.

This guide covers everything, from definition, classification, to shipping, among other vital aspects.

So, if you want to learn more, read this guide.

What is Bulk Cargo?

In shipping, a bulk cargo is any good shipped unpackaged, not inside pallets or boxes, and in large quantities.

The commodities can either be in liquid, granular, or solid form. Examples of bulk cargo include wheat, fertilizer, coal, natural gas, and oil.

Generally, bulk cargo comprises of the goods we need for our day to day use.

Shipping bulk cargo

Shipping bulk cargo

What are the Major Bulk Cargoes in International Shipping?

There are two major categories of bulk goods: liquid and solid bulk goods

Solid Bulk Cargo

Loading solid bulk cargo

Loading solid bulk cargo

There is a variety of Solid or dry bulk cargo ranging from produce to raw materials.

Importantly, all goods falling in this category are homogenous and are unpacked.

Mostly, they are stowed in ships using silos, cranes, conveyor belts or hopers.

These type of goods usually need to be kept dry during the whole transportation period.

Examples of solid bulk cargo include sugar, cocoa, coffee, iron ore, fertilizer, cement, coal, soy, and wheat.

Notably most agricultural product used in the global food industry falls under this category.

During transportation of Solid bulk cargo, the ‘Dangerous Good’ label is often applied.

This is to ensure careful loading and transportation of the goods.

Poor loading may lead to the shifting of the commodities to one side of the ship causing instability and eventual accidents.

Solid Bulk Cargo are transported in Bulk Carriers which ensure that all the advisable transportation standards are met.

Liquid Bulk Cargo

Shipping liquid bulk cargo

Shipping liquid bulk cargo

Liquid Bulk Cargo, comprises of any free-flowing commodity loaded and unloaded from the ship using pumping stations or pipelines.

This type of cargo is normally classified into four groups:

  • Hazardous liquids – Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). These liquids are generally harmful to organisms and the environment.
  • Non-Hazardous Liquid – Such as cooking oils, vegetable oils, juices, milk, and any other liquid that does not pose any harm to an organism and the environment.
  • Edible Liquids – These are non-hazardous liquids that can be consumed without causing substantial harm. Examples include edible oil, wine, juices, milk, etc.
  • Non-edible liquids – These liquids fall under both the Hazardous (LPG and LNG), and non-hazardous category (such as aqueous dyes and glycerin).

Liquid Bulk Cargo are transported in specialized vessels with tankers to hold the commodities.

What does Break Bulk mean in Shipping?

Contrary to bulk cargo, break bulk cargo is unitized mostly in form of drums, crates, pallets or bags.

Also, break bulk can be non-unitized, for example steel or vehicles. Generally, break bulk cargo is used when to refer to cargos that can be quantified.

Break bulk can be used to refer to goods which cannot fit in the largest container. Consequently, they are subdivided into smaller units and shipped collectively.

What is the History of Break Bulk Shipping?

Prior to the advent of containerization, before the 19th century, shipping was quite tedious and involving.

The process of shipping involved organizing commodities to fit in the vessel’s storage space.

The term break-bulk was coined to mean breaking bulk cargo in to smaller quantities.

Notably, before the container era, all commodities were shipped as break bulk.


After the world war, the narrative changed. Specialization erupted with various commodities having customized vessels for their transportation.

During this time, goods were packed in bales, which were loaded and unloaded by human labor.

This was expensive considering a large workforce required.

Also, all the cargo operations including sorting, loading, clearing, and loading were time consuming.

This era is termed as the ‘man load era.’

Shift to Unit Load

In ‘50s there was a shift from ‘man load’ to ‘unit load’.

This era was characterized by increased specialization of vessels and the use of machines to load and unload commodities.

Such machines include stackers, grab cranes, bulldozers, and conveyor belts.


In 1956, Malcom Mclean, an American transport entrepreneur, pioneered the usage of intermodal shipping container.

However, the use of containers picked up at a slow rate with the first use of container for international shipping occurring 10 year later (1960).

Since then, the use of containers for shipping has developed rapidly. In the 21st Century, about 90 percent of non-bulk commodities are transported in containers.

Containerization on Break Bulk Shipping

Although it may appear that containerization has negatively affected break bulk shipping, there is more to it.

Containerization has only led to the evolution, if not modernization, of break bulk shipping. Currently, break bulk shipping is used to transport bulk goods.

Bulk goods are the goods that cannot fit in the largest container size (40ft) and weigh over 35,000 Kg.

Why is Breaking Bulk Important?

Not all commodities are non-bulk and can be shipped in containers.

Consequently, there is a need for an alternative means to ship such commodities since they are essential.

Breaking bulk provides the required alternative.

You can break the bulk cargo into sizeable units that can then be shipped collectively.

What is the Procedure for Breaking Bulk Cargo?

There are different types of breaking bulk cargo.

First, let us look at the procedure of breaking bulk for commodities such as cocoa:

i. Packing the commodity in sacks, commonly 68 Kg sacks

ii. Transporting the sacks to the airport

iii. Loading the sacks into slings (these are pallets with lifting slings). A sling can accommodate 30 to 35 sacks

iv. Arranging and grouping the slings next to each other depending on the capacity of the onboard crane.

v. As the ship’s lifts one sling aboard, more slings are replaced into the vacated space until when ship’s hold is full.

Note: The groupings of the slings will remain intact during the entire transportation. This is to ensure easy offloading when the cargo reaches its port of destination.

Also, it reduces the risk of damage to the commodity.

For other break bulk commodities, the below procedure is applicable:

i. Manual assembling and classification of a cargo at a warehouse, such a cartage broker’s or manufacturer’s warehouse.

ii. Transferring of the cargo to surface transport vehicles.

iii. The vehicles transport the cargo to a transit shed found in the dock area. Transit shed has storage facilities to hold the cargo.

iv. The cargo is then moved from the transit shed to the dockside.

v. From the dockside the cargo is placed into the ship’s hold.

vi. Upon arrival at the port of destination, a reverse procedure is applied.

Note: All of these cargo handling procedures involve use of manual labor. This in turn makes the break bulk shipping quite costly.

To counter the uneconomical backlash of break bulk, countries such as the US have done away with the transit shed. This implies that the goods move directly from the warehouse to the ship.

How is Break Bulk Cargo Calculated?

Measurement of a break bulk cargo is in terms of the greatest length, width and height of the whole shipment.

For weight, the break bulk cargo is weighed per freight ton which is an equivalent of 1 cubic meter or metric ton.

Importantly, freight charges are calculated in terms of the measure and not the weight. Take this for example:

A break bulk cargo has a gross mass of 2 metric tons, with the length, width, and height measuring 2.5 meters, 1 meter, and 2 meters respectively.

The shipping line charges a tariff of USD 110. The freight amount will be:

  • 5 x 1x 2=5meters
  • 5 x 110 = USD 550

Note:  We did not use the metric tons for calculation but instead used the product of the measurement (Length x Width x Height)

What is Liquid Bulk Cargo in Shipping Terms?

Liquid bulk cargo is a shipment in free flowing form that is not packaged or in non-unitary state and is transported in special vessels known as tankers.

This type of cargo ranges from consumable commodities such as cooking oil and juices, to non-consumable products like gasoline and crude oil.

What is Break Bulk Fee?

Break bulk fee can be defined as the amount charged for converting a bulk cargo into unitary state or measurable quantities.

The bulk cargo can be packaged, drummed, or palletized so as to fall in the break-bulk cargo category.

What is Unpacked Bulk Cargo?

Unpacked bulk cargo is simply the opposite of the break bulk cargo.

This type of cargo is loaded un-unitized in the ship’s hold.

What are the Two Types of Unpacked Bulk Cargo?

Unpacked bulk cargo are subdivided into two main categories: solid/dry bulk and liquid bulk.

Solid/Dry Bulk Cargo

These can either be in granular form or any other solid state.

Examples of solid/ dry bulk include grain, coal, minerals, iron ore, and metals.

Liquid Bulk Cargo

These are bulk cargoes in their free flowing or liquid state.

Liquid bulk comprises of commodities such as crude oil, gasoline, chemicals, LNG, and petroleum

What Types of Goods can be Transported on Break Bulk Cargo?

As the name suggests, any good that can break easily can be transported on break bulk cargo.

The good should be able to be packaged in crates, pallets, drums or racks.

Examples of such goods include: wood, paper, bags of cocoa, machinery parts, steel rolls etc.

How can you Transport Bulk Cargo?

Since bulk cargo exceeds the container limit, the use of containers to ship such cargo is ruled out.

If the bulk cargo can be subdivided and unitized or packaged, then you can transport them as break bulk shipment.

However, if the former is not possible, you will have to transport is a bulk cargo.

This will involve loading the entire unpackaged bulk cargo into a specialized vessel referred to as a Bulker.

The Bulker has specialized compartments on its hold to accommodate the bulk cargo.

What is a Dry Bulk Terminal?

Dry bulk terminal can simply be described as the loading and unloading platform during the shipping process of dry bulk cargo.

Importantly, the efficiency of a dry bulk terminal is greatly dependent on the technology employed.

The more sophisticated the technology, the faster the loading and unloading of the dry bulk cargo.

What is Project Cargo?

Sometimes referred to as project logistics or project forwarding; project cargo is the transportation of time-bound commodities that are either high value, large, complex or require heavy lifting.

Such commodities may include break-bulk cargo but not bulk cargo.

What is the Difference Between Project Cargo and Break Bulk Cargo?

Below are the major differences between a project cargo and a break bulk cargo:

  • Unlike break bulk cargo which is mostly transported by sea, project cargo can be transported by sea, water, and land.
  • Also, project cargo is time-bound with stipulated delivery dateswhich is not the case with break bulk cargo.

What is Meant by Solid Bulk Cargo?

Solid bulk cargo is any unpacked commodity that is not in liquid or gaseous form and is loaded directly to a vessel (Bulker) in large quantities.

The cargo can be in form of granules, particles or any other material. Notably, solid bulk cargo are normally uniform in composition.

Examples include: minerals, iron ore, grain, coal, etc.

Who is Responsible for Breaking Bulk Cargo?

Depending on the agreement with the freight forwarder you can either break the bulk cargo yourself or leave the freight forwarder to handle it.

In some cases, the seller or exporter breaks the bulk cargo by him/herself for easy distribution to various individual consignees.

What is Handymax Bulk Carrier?

Handymax bulkers

Handymax bulkers

Handymax is a bulk carrier with a general deadweight capacity of between 35,000 – 50,000 DWT.

However, modern handymax have a size ranging from 52,000 to 58,000 DWT.

Mostly, these bulkers are used to carry solid/dry bulk commodities such as coal, iron ore, cement, grains, and fertilizer.

However, they can also be small-sized oil tankers.

Importantly, handymax vessel is among the smallest bulk carriers with a typical length of 490 – 650ft (150 to 200m).

Additionally, it has 4 cranes with a lifting capacity of 30 metric tons and 5 cargo holds.

The on-deck cranes make them ideal for transportation of bulk commodities to less sophisticated ports.

How is Bulk Cargo Loaded into Shipping Vessels?

The loading of a bulk cargo is dependent on the type of the bulk cargo.

Discussed below is how both the liquid and solid bulk cargo are loaded.

Liquid Bulk Cargo

Most modern tankers load liquid cargo using discharge/ articulated arm loading systems which are usually found in the off and onshore loading and off-loading facilities.

The articulated arm usually connects to the tanker’s manifold (usually at the center of the ship), to load and offload the liquid bulk cargo.

Also, most tankers load oil at the sea oilfields using a system known as a Submerged Turret Loading System.

Using this system, the vessel is loaded from the bottom using sophisticated technology.

Dry/Solid Bulk Cargo

Majorly, solid bulk cargo are usually loaded to the Bulk carrier using grabbers.

There are two major types of grabbers: Grab for iron ore, and Belt Conveyor.

Loose bulk cargoes are loaded from a stock pile in the loading dock into a hopper in the ship’s hold.

Notably, when loading dry bulk cargo, it is important to ensure the commodity is evenly distributed.

Uneven distribution may lead to one side of the ship having more weight resulting to instability.

What is the Difference Between Handymax and Supramax Bulk Carrier?

Generally, both handymax and supramax are considered the smallest bulk carriers with a capacity of below 60,000 DWT.

The major difference between the two is that a handymax vessel has a capacity of between 35,000 to 50,000 DWT, while a supramax vessel has a capacity of between 50,000 to 60,000 DWT.

Conclusively, the supramax is a bit larger than the handymax, and almost the size of the panamax.

Also the close size proximity of supramax to panamax, makes it more desirable over handymax  as it is able to hold more cargo

What are the Hazards of Solid Bulk Cargo?

The major hazards of solid bulk cargo are:

  • Ship instability when the solid bulk cargo is unevenly distributed. In the worst case scenario, this may lead to the ship capsizing.
  • Risk of fire or explosion when transporting flammable solid bulk cargo
  • Damages to parts of the bulk carrier if the solid bulk cargo is not appropriately loaded
  • Cargo liquefaction

What is Bulk Cargo Liquefaction?

Bulk cargo liquefaction is the abrupt change of a solid bulk cargo to an almost liquid or fluid state.

Most bulk cargo that are at risk of undergoing liquefaction are minerals such as pyrites, fluorspar, nickel ore, etc.

At first the solid cargo may look dry during the loading. However, they might be harboring moisture within their particles.

During the transportation by sea, ship’s motions, wave impacts and engine vibrations may result to agitation.

Consequently, the commodity becomes compact forcing the transition from a solid state to a somehow fluid state.

What are the Effects of Bulk Cargo Liquefaction?

The liquefaction of a bulk cargo will result to the shifting of the cargo.

Consequently, this will result to the ship instability, damage of the ship structures, and eventually the capsizing of a ship.

Ultimately, bulk cargo liquefaction may lead to major losses and even death of the crew members on board.

Does Moisture Affect Bulk Cargo during Shipping?

Yes, moisture mostly affects dry bulk cargo during shipping. Notably, it is important to ensure that a dry bulk cargo remains dry throughout the shipping process.

A phenomenon that can occur during the shipping of a bulk cargo is the moisture migration.

This simply means that moisture moves from the warmer part of the cargo to a cooler part.

This happens when a part of the cargo is adjacent to a heat generating part of the ship.

Consequently, the part being heated becomes warmer forcing the moisture to migrate.

When this happens, the cooler part becomes more soggy leading to damage of the commodity.

How much does a Bulk Carrier Cost?

Estimating the cost of a bulk carrier is an uphill task unless you get a direct quotation from a supplier.

However, some recent sales, 2017 there about, in Singapore can give you a rough estimate cost.

A 16- year old 75,100 dead weight ton was sold for around $4.4 million.

Also, a 15-year old DWT Panama was price-tagged at $4.65 million.

Bulk carrier

Bulk carrier

What is Break BulkCargo Handling Procedure?

The loading, safe handling, and discharge of a cargo is ensured by the Chief Officer.

He/she can only ensure this after being provided with a cargo manifest which defines the cargo as either hazardous, heavy lift or valuable.

Below are some duties the Chief Officer has to ensure safe handling after receiving the cargo manifest:

  • Come up with a suitable loading plan of the ship
  • Carry out a stability assessment of the ship
  • Give out orders to make the ship conducive. This include instructing the ship compartments be cleaned, and the interior including ventilations, ceilings, and floor be up to standard.
  • Document on specific cargoes, such as livestock, valuables and hazardous commodities.
  • Note any damaged cargo in the bill of lading.
  • Dispatch all the relevant documentation including the loading plan to the relevant parties before the despatcher of the ship.

Note: All these duties of a Chief Officer during shipping of a break bulk cargo are aimed at ensuring the proper and safe handling of the cargo.

What are the Standard BreakBulk Cargo Rates?

As at 2015 heavy lift rates had fallen to $90 per ton, a significant difference from the $150 per ton in 2013.

A mismatch between the demand and shipping capacity has resulted to a downward pressure in the rates overtime.

Simply put, the increase in the amount of tonnage to be shipped as break bulk cargo has lowered the break bulk cargo rates.

What are the Disadvantages of Break Bulk Cargo?

The major drawbacks of break bulk cargo are:

  • It requires extensive labor owing to the activities involved in shipping. Such activities include warehousing, packaging, loading, and offloading.
  • Shipping break bulk cargo is also more expensive as it uses up more space.
  • Moreover, the loading of break bulk cargo needs specialized and sophisticated equipment for efficiency.
  • Security and safety is also a concern. During the bundling or packaging, some goods can cause bodily harm if handled inappropriately. Also, there is a risk of the goods being damaged or stolen.
  • Unlike containerization, break bulk cargo does not offer special facilities such as refrigeration for perishable commodities.

What are the Packaging Methods for Break Bulk cargo?

There exists various packaging methods for break bulk cargo. Below are the major packaging methods:


This is commonly used for commodities such as grains, fertilizers, sugar, coconut, dried fruit, seeds, coffee, flour, raisins, salts, dried milk, dried blood, meal (copra, fish, seed, etc.), shells, etc.

The bags are only used to hold the contents together but do not guarantee protection from external damages.

Carton and Fiberboard boxes

Cartons and fiberboard boxes are economic and efficient making them the most preferred mode of packaging.

They provide some level of security from theft and loss.

Also, they can withstand typical shipping hazards.

Cartons can be directly put inside a container; or securely strapped on pallets if the cargo will have to be moved around.

· Wooden Cases

The use of wooden cases for packaging has been around for a while.

They are more expensive than cartons but ensure more protection to the enclosed content.

The most commonly used wooden cases are made from plywood.

·nWooden Crates

Unlike the wooden cases, wooden crates are not completely covered.

They are mainly used to facilitate storage and handling.

In some cases, carton and fiberboard boxes are placed inside wooden crates for reinforcement.

· Barrels

Barrels are majorly used in shipping liquids such as molasses, whisky, paints, etc.

Also some solids such as cement, scrap metals, cement, etc. can be enclosed within barrels.

· Lift Vans

These are specialized packaging material made of wood, containing metallic roofing, and lined on the inside with waterproof material.

They are mainly used to transport household goods such a cupboards, chairs, brassware, glassware, etc.

There are to be handled using forklifts.

· Pallets

When using pallets for a break bulk cargo, the commodities are strapped on the pallet.

What Documentation do you need to Transport Bulk or Break Bulk Cargo?

The important documentation you will need are:

  • Bill of manifestation – which will outline the nature of the commodity being transported. Whether hazardous, valuable or heavy lift
  • Bill of lading – which will give detailed information pertaining the shipment

Also, you will require relevant certification and clearances before you can freely transport your bulk or break bulk cargo.

Are Courier Services involved in Transporting Bulk and Break Bulk Cargo?

Both courier services and freight forwarders are actively involved in the transportation of bulk and break bulk cargo.

Since these types of cargo are part and parcel of shipping, almost all companies involved in shipping do transport them.

What is Break Bulk Warehouse?

Break bulk warehouse is where the bulk commodity is received and broken into smaller units for packaging.
What is the Difference Between Break-bulk vs Container?

Break bulk are individual units of a commodity transported in a ship while the container is a storage unit for materials being shipped.

Mostly, break bulk cargo are packaged and stand alone.

However, they can also be loaded inside a container.

That’s it – all information you need to know about bulk and break bulk cargo.

At BanSar we help you ship all type of cargo from China to any region globally.

Contact us today for your bulk and break bulk cargo shipping needs.

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