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Break Bulk Shipping: What is it and its Role in eCommerce Industry.

June 21, 2024

11 min read

A maverick amidst conformity is what break bulk shipping can be described as. In a world where standardised shipments and containers are the norm, break bulk shipping is the hidden treasure of this logistics world. Most shippers are extremely familiar with common methods of moving cargo. However, do you know how to deal with oversized cargo transit? That’s where bulk shipping enters the game.

This article offers an in-depth understanding of break bulk shipping, its types, and its workings. It also explores its pros and cons while comparing it with different types of shipping.

Understanding Break Bulk Shipping

Today, break bulk shipping is mostly used for cargo that is heavily weighted or large and, thus, difficult to fit in a standard container. These are instead transported in crates, barrels, drums, etc. 

Some of the most common break bulk goods are inclusive steel girders, structural steel, oversized goods, construction equipment, and vehicles. Port infrastructure, safety of the vessel, and law enforcement will stay stable hence major changes are not expected to come in the break bulk domain.

Types of Break Bulk Shipping

Break bulk shipping can easily be divided into these two categories:

  • Dry Bulk Shipping

Dry products, including coal, ores, grains, cement, etc., that are not liquid are transported, and this process is known as dry bulk shipping. Such items are not packaged in any method before being poured or scooped onto a ship’s hold. 

  • Liquid Bulk Shipping

The moving of liquids like chemicals, crude oil, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) loaded onto specialised tankers is called liquid bulk shipping. The containers and tankers are designed to handle them safely. Break bulk shipping is inclusive of the movement of commodities that are not uniform and are most often packed in smaller boxes, pieces, pallets, etc., as opposed to bulk shipping. Bulk shipping deals with uniform goods placed directly in a vessel or container. The process of splitting commodities into smaller parts that are more easily manageable is known as the breaking of the bulk. It is used when the whole cargo cannot be shipped in one go.

What is Break Bulk Cargo?

The earliest days of shipping mostly saw break bulk cargo being shipped across the ocean. Initially, when the transportation of goods across the globe first began, they would be loaded and unloaded one at a time. The crew on the ships were often responsible for helping with this process. However, in the case of trains and trucks, people waited at the receiving end to offload the goods. On ships, the storage was divided into different sections.

Goods were placed only in their designated areas. Though items like pallets, barrels of wine and oil, bags of grain, and crates were shipped on the same vessel, they were kept apart. There was a specific way to load the goods. Some items were always placed in the center, while some goods were not placed next to each other. 

More efficient and secure shipping methods were designed by the late 1960s. These new shipping methods quickly became popular. Today, break bulk shipping is mostly used for cargo that is too bulky or large to fit in a standard container.

Most trading centers are separated by large distances. However, globalisation has got the world a whole lot closer. The advancement of technology has given birth to modern transport that is equipped with the latest technology and it is capable of handling cargo more efficiently for B2B Deliveries.

Grains, oil, minerals, ores, etc., needed to be transported in enormous quantities are brilliant examples of goods that are generally transported otherwise. They are stored and protected in smaller units in the holds of a ship or any other storage area. These consignments are termed as break bulk cargo. 

The bill for lading break bulk commodities is listed in the form of total volume or weight. Cargo moved as break bulk is transported from land to a ship by gantry cranes or other handling equipment that can lift heavy loads.

How Does Break Bulk Shipping Work?

Cargoes under the break bulk category are shipped via trucks and trains. They are loaded directly on the vessel. When such break bulk cargo arrives early, it is stored in a port warehouse until the ship arrives. Upon the arrival of the ship, break bulk items are loaded on the ship. They are transported in a number of batches. 

The ship must be washed and dried properly to ensure it is clean and sterile. After this, loading is done, and the ship departs to its final destination. Based on the shipping terms, the cargo can be collected and stored in the port warehouse, which will be collected by the consignee at a later stage.

Bulk Cargo Vs Break Bulk Shipping

Bulk cargo is simply goods that are moved in undivided and large quantities. Such cargo is generally transported in large containers in vehicles like ships, trains, and trucks. Such cargo is homogeneous and uniform. Vessels to carry such types of cargo are specially designed to handle such bulk quantities.

Break bulk cargo is goods that are transported in smaller packing like pallets, bags, boxes, barrels, or drums. They can be shipped via vehicles like ships or trucks. Such cargo can be homogeneous or heterogeneous.

Though bulk cargo can be shipped without containers, it’s placed loose in the ship instead of inside barrels, boxes, or drums before loading them on the ship.

Break Bulk Shipping Vs Container Shipping

When objects must be moved over large distances, it can be done either through break bulk or container shipping. When shipping cargo within a container, companies have the option of controlling the conditions of their items. This is not possible through break bulk shipping. In container shipping, the cargo is not exposed to the air, and it is extremely secure. In break bulk shipping, the oversized cargo is dismantled into smaller packages and then shipped.Let’s look at the basic differences between container and break bulk shipping.

Break bulk shippingContainer shipping
Break bulk shipping is used for goods that can’t be packed into a shipping container.Container shipping is used for cargo that can be packed into a standard or special shipping container.
The cargo is placed directly onboard a ship and then directly unloaded at the port.The cargo must be loaded and unloaded from shipping containers. 
The cargo is loaded by rolling onboard or using the vessel lifting equipment.Cranes are used to load the cargo onboard.
Break bulk shipping is not suitable for transporting temperature-sensitive items and food products.Container shipping can be used to transport both food products and temperature-sensitive goods.

Benefits of Break Bulk Shipping

Let’s look at the major benefits of break bulk shipping.

  • Break bulk shipping is ideal for oversized, heavy, or irregularly shaped cargo, such as machinery, construction equipment, and vehicles. This process can accommodate various items that cannot be containerised​​.
  • It allows for loading and unloading at a broader range of ports, including those without specialised container handling facilities, providing greater flexibility in routing and destination options​.
  • For some types of cargo, break bulk shipping can be more economical. This is particularly true when the cost of specialised containers and handling equipment is factored in. It can also reduce costs related to disassembly and reassembly of large items​.
  • Break bulk vessels can access smaller and less developed ports that may not accommodate large container ships. This makes it a suitable option for delivering goods to remote or underdeveloped regions​.
  • Break bulk ships may have faster transit times on certain routes because they can often travel directly to their final destination without multiple port stops. It is quite common for container vessels​.

Drawbacks of Break Bulk Shipping

Here are the major drawbacks of break bulk shipping.

  • The loading and unloading process for break bulk cargo is labour-intensive and requires significant manpower. This can result in higher labour costs and potential delays, especially when handling large or irregularly shaped items.
  • Since each item is handled individually, there is a greater risk of damage during transit. Additionally, break bulk cargo is more susceptible to theft and environmental exposure compared to containerised goods​.
  • Break bulk shipping involves more complex documentation and handling requirements. Each piece of cargo may require separate documentation and tracking, increasing administrative burdens and the risk of errors​.
  • Break bulk cargo must be stowed individually, which can result in inefficient use of vessel space. This often leads to higher costs and less optimal space utilisation compared to container shipping​.
  • Break bulk shipping can have a significant environmental consequence due to increased fuel consumption and emissions associated with longer transit times and less efficient vessel utilisation​.

Break Bulk Cargo Packaging

Packing for break bulk cargo can be done in a number of different methods, including:

  • Bagged Cargo: This is a packing method where the individual parts are placed in bags and then loaded onto the vessel. Coffee, grain, sugar, beans, etc., are examples of cargo shipped in bags. Such cargo should be protected during shipping, and hence, it is more expensive to ship such cargo. 
  • Crates and Corrugated Boxes: These are other popular methods of break bulk packing. The stability and durability of corrugated boxes and crates are extremely ideal while shipping large quantities of goods. Appliances, furniture, machines, and fruits are shipped after being packed in this manner. 
  • Drums and Barrels: Such packaging is used for powders and liquids. It can also be used for dry goods as well. These packaging items are made from plastic, wood, or metal. This method of packing is relatively inexpensive and is simple to handle and transport. Crude oil, drinks, flour, tea, etc., are shipped in this manner.
  • Pallets: These can either be made of plastic or wood. Pallets are also available in different sizes. Standard pallets measuring 48” X 40” and euro pallets measuring 47.24” X 39.37” are the most common pallets. These pallets can be used to stack and secure goods. It simplifies the process of loading and storage of goods onboard a ship.

Break Bulk Cargo Loading and Unloading

The process includes the following steps:

  • Vessel Preparation: The ship is washed, cleaned, and dried before loading
  • Securing the Vessel: The vessel is moored to a pier or anchor in a secure location. The next step in the process is to prep the cargo for loading. The cargo is properly labelled as well.
  • Loading the Cargo on the Vessel and Securing it: This is done using a crane or any other lifting device. The cargo is loaded and secured so that it does not move during transit. It is secured using straps before departure.
  • Unloading of cargo: The unloading process is done through a lifting device or a crane. They are safely inspected and unloaded at the delivery port.
  • Preparation of the Next Load: After the unloading and inspection process, the ship storage is cleaned, scrubbed, and dried before the next load. 

Keys in Break Bulk Cargo Consideration for Shipping

The key considerations in break bulk cargo shipping include the following:

  • Planning and Proper Coordination: Maintaining consistent coordination is the most difficult part of break bulk shipping. Efficiency in loading and unloading determines the success of this method of shipping.
  • Proper Air-Tight Packing: The individual packaging must be done in the right manner to ensure there is no leaking and contamination of the contents within. 
  • Consultation with the Manufacturer: You must ask the manufacturer about the type of packing used and the quality to ensure that the cargo is adequately protected. 
  • Using Good Quality Packing Materials: Using bad quality packing material can damage the cargo. Hence, losses can be incurred. Using good quality packing materials can protect the cargo throughout the journey.


The break bulk process facilitates shipping oversized cargo. This process of shipping has several advantages, and it is important to understand that it comes with its demerits as well. The loading and unloading processes can be extremely time-consuming. Hence, manpower is needed in abundance to get the job done. Moreover, break bulk shipping needs the right type of ship to move cargo. These ships are typically much larger to accommodate such oversized cargo.

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