In shipping, break bulk cargo or general cargo are goods that must be loaded individually, and not in intermodal containers nor in bulk as with oil or grain. Ships that carry this sort of cargo are called general cargo ships.
The term break bulk derives from the phrase breaking bulk—the extraction of a portion of the cargo of a ship or the beginning of the unloading process from the ship's holds. These goods may not be in shipping containers. Break bulk cargo is transported in bags, boxes, crates, drums, or barrels. Unit loads of items secured to a pallet or skid are also used.
A break-in-bulk point is a place where goods are transferred from one mode of transport to another, for example the docks where goods transfer from ship to truck.
Break bulk was the most common form of cargo for most of the history of shipping. Since the late 1960s the volume of break bulk cargo has declined dramatically worldwide as containerization has grown. Moving cargo on and off ship in containers is much more efficient, allowing ships to spend less time in port. Break bulk cargo also suffered from greater theft and damage.
Primary maritime cargo types
|Primary maritime cargo types|
|Break bulk cargo or general cargo||Countable||Yes||No||Break bulk cargo or general cargo are goods that must be loaded individually, and not in intermodal containers nor in bulk as with oil or grain. Ships that carry this sort of cargo are called general cargo ships. The term break bulk derives from the phrase breaking bulk—the extraction of a portion of the cargo of a ship or the beginning of the unloading process from the ship's holds. These goods may not be in shipping containers. Break bulk cargo is transported in bags, boxes, crates, drums, or barrels. Unit loads of items secured to a pallet or skid are also used.|
|Bulk cargo (bulk dry cargo)||Weighable||No||No||Bulk cargo is commodity cargo that is transported unpackaged in large quantities. It refers to material in either liquid or granular, particulate form, as a mass of relatively small solids, such as petroleum/crude oil, grain, coal, or gravel. This cargo is usually dropped or poured, with a spout or shovel bucket, into a bulk carrier ship's hold, railroad car/railway wagon, or tanker truck/trailer/semi-trailer body. Smaller quantities (still considered "bulk") can be boxed (or drummed) and palletised. Bulk cargo is classified as liquid or dry.|
|Bulk liquid cargo||Weighable||No||No||A tanker (or tank ship or tankship) is a ship designed to transport or store liquids or gases in bulk. Major types of tankship include the oil tanker, the chemical tanker, and gas carrier. Tankers also carry commodities such as vegetable oils, molasses and wine. In the United States Navy and Military Sealift Command, a tanker used to refuel other ships is called an oiler (or replenishment oiler if it can also supply dry stores) but many other navies use the terms tanker and replenishment tanker. A wide range of products are carried by tankers, including:|
|Container cargo||Countable||Yes||Yes||Containerization is a system of intermodal freight transport using intermodal containers (also called shipping containers and ISO containers). The containers have standardized dimensions. They can be loaded and unloaded, stacked, transported efficiently over long distances, and transferred from one mode of transport to another—container ships, rail transport flatcars, and semi-trailer trucks—without being opened. The handling system is completely mechanized so that all handling is done with cranes  and special forklift trucks. All containers are numbered and tracked using computerized systems.|
|Neo-bulk cargo||Weighable||Yes||No||In the ocean shipping trade, neo-bulk cargo is a type of cargo that is a subcategory of general cargo, alongside the other subcategories of break-bulk cargo and containerized cargo. (Gerhardt Muller, erstwhile professor at the United States Merchant Marine Academy and Manager of Regional Intermodal Planning of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, promotes it from a subcategory to being a third major category of cargo in its own right, alongside general and bulk cargo.) It comprises goods that are prepackaged, counted as they are loaded and unloaded (as opposed to bulk cargo where individual items are not counted), not stored in containers, and transferred as units at port. Types of neo-bulk cargo goods include heavy machinery, lumber, bundled steel, scrap iron, bananas, waste paper, and cars. The category has only become recognized as a distinct cargo category in its own right in recent decades.|
|Passenger cargo||Countable||No||No||A passenger ship is a merchant ship whose primary function is to carry passengers on the sea.|
|Project cargo||Weighable||Yes||No||Project cargo is a term used to broadly describe the national or international transportation of large, heavy, high value, or critical (to the project they are intended for) pieces of equipment. Also commonly referred to as heavy lift, this includes shipments made of various components which need disassembly for shipment and reassembly after delivery.|
|Refrigerated cargo||Weighable||Yes||Yes / no||A reefer ship is a refrigerated cargo ship, typically used to transport perishable commodities which require temperature-controlled transportation, such as fruit, meat, fish, vegetables, dairy products and other foods.|
|Roll-on/roll-off cargo||Countable||No||No||Roll-on/roll-off (RORO or ro-ro) ships are vessels designed to carry wheeled cargo, such as cars, trucks, semi-trailer trucks, trailers, and railroad cars, that are driven on and off the ship on their own wheels or using a platform vehicle, such as a self-propelled modular transporter. This is in contrast to lift-on/lift-off (LOLO) vessels, which use a crane to load and unload cargo.|
Loading and unloading
Although cargo of this sort can be delivered straight from a truck or train onto a ship, the most common way is for the cargo to be delivered to the dock in advance of the arrival of the ship and for the cargo to be stored in warehouses. When the ship arrives the cargo is then taken from the warehouse to the quay and then lifted on board by either the ship's gear (derricks or cranes) or by the dockside cranes. The discharge of the ship is the reverse of the loading operation.
Loading and discharging by break bulk is labour-intensive. The cargo is brought to the quay next to the ship and then each individual item is lifted on board separately. Some items such as sacks or bags can be loaded in batches by using a sling or cargo net and others such as cartons can be loaded onto trays before being lifted on board. Once on board each item must be stowed separately.
Before any loading takes place, any signs of the previous cargo are removed. The holds are swept, washed if necessary and any damage to them repaired. Dunnage is laid ready for the cargo or is just put in bundles ready for the stevedores to lay out as the cargo is loaded.
There are many sorts of break bulk cargo but amongst them are:
Bagged cargo (e.g. coffee in sacks) is stowed on double dunnage and kept clear of the ship's sides and bulk heads. Bags are kept away from pillars and stanchions by covering it with matting or waterproof paper.
Baled goods are stowed on single dunnage at least 50 mm (2 in) thick. The bales must be clean with all the bands intact. Stained or oily bales are rejected. All fibres can absorb oil and are liable to spontaneous combustion. As a result, they are kept clear of any new paintwork. Bales close to the deckhead are covered to prevent damage by dripping sweat.
Barrels and casks
Wooden barrels are stowed on their sides on "beds" of dunnage which keeps the middle of the side (the bilge) off the deck and they are stowed with the bung at the top. To prevent movement, wedges called quoins are put in on top of the "beds". Barrels should be stowed fore and aft and not athwart ships. Once the first tier has been loaded the next tier of barrels fits into the hollows between the barrels, this is known as stowing "bilge and cantline". Barrels which are also known as casks or tuns are primarily use for transporting liquids such as wine, water, brandy, whiskey, and even oil. They are usually built in spherical shape to make it easier to roll and have less friction when changing direction.
Corrugated boxes are stowed on a good layer of dunnage and kept clear of any moisture. Military and weather-resistant grades of corrugated fiberboard are available. They are not overstowed with anything other than similar boxes. They are frequently loaded on pallets to form a unit load; if so the slings that are used to load the cargo are frequently left on to facilitate discharge.
Wooden shipping containers
Wooden boxes or crates are stowed on double dunnage in the holds and single dunnage in the 'tween decks. Heavy boxes are given bottom stowage. The loading slings are often left on to aid discharge.
Metal drums are stowed on end with dunnage between tiers, in the longitudinal space of the ship.
Reels or rolls are generally stowed on their sides and care is taken to make sure they are not crushed.
Automobiles are lifted on board and then secured using lashings. Great care is taken to prevent damage. Vehicles are prepared by removing hazardous liquids (gasoline, etc.). This is in contrast to ro-ro (roll-on/roll-off) vessels where vehicles are driven on and off the ship under their own power.
Any long heavy items are stowed fore and aft. If they are stowed athwart ships they are liable to shift if the ship rolls heavily and pierce the side of the ship.
Advantages and disadvantages
The biggest disadvantage with break bulk is that it requires more resources at the wharf at both ends of the transport—longshoremen, loading cranes, warehouses, transport vehicles—and often takes up more dock space due to multiple vessels carrying multiple loads of break bulk cargo. Indeed, the decline of break bulk did not start with containerisation; rather, the advent of tankers and bulk carriers reduced the need for transporting liquids in barrels and grains in sacks. Such tankers and carriers use specialised ships and shore facilities to deliver larger amounts of cargo to the dock and effect faster turnarounds with fewer personnel once the ship arrives; however, they do require large initial investments in ships, machinery, and training, slowing their spread to areas where funds to overhaul port operations and/or training for dock personnel in the handling of cargo on the newer vessels may not be available. As modernization of ports and shipping fleets spreads across the world, the advantages of using containerization and specialized ships over break-bulk has sped the overall decline of break-bulk operations around the world. In all, the new systems have reduced costs as well as spillage and turnaround times; in the case of containerisation, damage and theft as well.
Break bulk continues to hold an advantage in areas where port development has not kept pace with shipping technology; break-bulk shipping requires relatively minimal shore facilities—a wharf for the ship to tie to, dock workers to assist in unloading, warehouses to store materials for later reloading onto other forms of transport. As a result, there are still some areas where break-bulk shipping continues to thrive. Goods shipped break-bulk can also be offloaded onto smaller vessels and lighters for transport into even the most minimally-developed port which the normally large container ships, tankers, and bulk carriers might not be able to access due to size and/or water depth. In addition, some ports capable of accepting larger container ships/tankers/bulk transporters still require goods to be offloaded in break-bulk fashion; for example, in the outlying islands of Tuvalu, fuel oil for the power stations is delivered in bulk but has to be offloaded in barrels.
- Notes on Cargo Work by J. F. Kemp and Peter Young, 1971 (3rd edition); page 31. ISBN 0-85309-040-8.
- Notes on Cargo Work by J. F. Kemp and Peter Young, 1971 (3rd edition); page 31. ISBN 0-85309-040-8.
- Edmonds, John (2017-03-03). "The Freight Essentials: Getting Your Products Across The Ocean". Retrieved 2017-09-01.
- Lewandowski, Krzysztof (2016). "Growth in the Size of Unit Loads and Shipping Containers from Antique to WWI". Packaging Technology and Science. 29 (8–9): 451–478. doi:10.1002/pts.2231. ISSN 1099-1522.
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- Notes on Cargo Work by J. F. Kemp and Peter Young, 1971 (3rd edition); page 32: ISBN 0-85309-040-8.
- Notes on Cargo Work by J. F. Kemp and Peter Young, 1971 (3rd edition); page 33: ISBN 0-85309-040-8.
- Notes on Cargo Work by J. F. Kemp and Peter Young, 1971 (3rd edition); page 35: ISBN 0-85309-040-8.
- Notes on Cargo Work by J. F. Kemp and Peter Young, 1971 (3rd edition); page 37: ISBN 0-85309-040-8.
- Kemp, J. F.; Young, Peter (1971). Notes on Cargo Work (3rd ed.). p. 38. ISBN 0-85309-040-8.
- Notes on Cargo Work by J. F. Kemp and Peter Young, 1971 (3rd edition); page 39: ISBN 0-85309-040-8.
- Notes on Cargo Work by J. F. Kemp and Peter Young, 1971 (3rd edition); page 40: ISBN 0-85309-040-8.
- Tuvalu Electricity Corporation Presentation, Taaku Sekielu and Polu Tanei (PDF)
- Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton Univ. Press 2006).
- Sauerbier, Charles L.; Meurn, Robert J. (2004). Marine cargo operations: a guide to stowage. Cambridge, Md: Cornell Maritime Press. ISBN 0-87033-550-2.