Break bulk shipping involves transporting packaged or individual cargo units, as opposed to bulk or containerized cargo. Common examples of break bulk cargo include grains, machinery, vehicles, scrap, and beans, to name a few.

This type of cargo is typically packed and stowed in boxes, crates, bags, drums, barrels, and other small containers before it’s loaded onto a break bulk vessel. While it once was the most popular method of transporting cargo, it’s been superseded by containerized cargo since the 1960s.

Today, most break bulk ships are sized between 2,000 and 40,000 deadweight tonnage (DWT) and transport cargo from break bulk terminals to various locations around the world. These terminals are designed to facilitate the storing, packing, and loading processes.

In this article, we’ll discuss break bulk terminals in detail and share their benefits, the type of cargo they handle, and how carriers load and unload cargo at these terminals. 

What Are Break Bulk Terminals?

Break bulk terminals are port terminals designed to consolidate or break up individual or bundled cargo, and facilitate the overall break bulk shipping process. Break bulk cargo, such as grains, scrap, sugar, vehicles, beans, pipes, and similar goods are transported to these terminals via trucks or trains.

The cargo is then temporarily stored in the terminal warehouse before it is packaged into various types of containers (not shipping containers, but rather boxes, bags, cartons, drums, etc).

Finally, they are loaded onto designated break bulk vessels and transported to the port of discharge, which is typically a break bulk terminal at the destination. It’s important to note that before the cargo is loaded, the ground crew must wash and dry the ship’s cargo hold to ensure it’s clean and sterile.

Break bulk terminals also facilitate the deconsolidation of break bulk, meaning that they break up the cargo from arriving vessels. They are deconsolidated and stored accordingly before they are shipped to processing facilities through trucks and trains.

Types of Cargo Handled by Break Bulk Terminals

As mentioned earlier, break bulk terminals handle a wide range of cargo. These types of cargo are usually not shipped in standard shipping containers and are instead loaded directly onto trucks or trains from production facilities and or stored at port warehouses.

break bulk vessel

Below is a broader list of the most common types of break bulk cargo:

  • Crude Oil
  • Grains
  • Cement
  • Coffee
  • Fertilizers
  • Scrap
  • Wood
  • Pipes
  • Sugar
  • Beans
  • Cocoa

How Cargo Is Loaded in Break Bulk Terminals

The loading process at break bulk terminals is typically dependent on the type of cargo or how it’s packaged. However, most loading processes are carried out using vessel cranes and port cranes. This often involves using nets, lashes, and slings, to move cargo from the quay onto break bulk vessels.

As cargo such as grains, scrap, cocoa, sugar, wood, and other break bulk cargo is generally not containerized, various other types of packaging is required to securely store and transport it. Let’s explore them in a little more detail.


Bags are among the most common packaging used to hold break bulk cargo, particularly for raw materials and commodities such as coffee beans, powder, cement, and grains.

These bags vary in terms of size and can typically hold cargo between 50-150 lbs. Most carriers store bags in stacking positions at break bulk terminals and move them around using forklifts.


Barrels are typically used to fill oils, alcohol, perfumes, and other types of liquids. While traditional barrels were made of wood, nowadays they are made of either steel, fiber, or plastic.

Barrels can be filled to a capacity of about 200 – 650 liters (depending on their size) and are hooked up to different types of attachments when loaded with cranes or forklifts (with the use of side clamps or barrel handlers).


Boxes, also called crates or cases, are typically made of thin timber or plywood. They come in different sizes and are used to transport a wide range of commodities using forklifts and cranes. Break bulk cargo that is typically packed into boxed includes canned goods, cooking oil, spices, and other types of products. 


Drums are similar to barrels in terms of the type of cargo they carry, including oil, chemicals, detergents, paints, powders, and more. However, the key difference is that they’re used to ship hazardous goods that require detailed labeling and more damage resistance.

Drums are usually handled with nets, rope slings, and trays. Many carriers also employ handling attachments so they can be transported via cranes and forklifts. 


Reels are round objects shaped like drums typically used to hold, electrical cables, wires, and similar equipment. They are typically transported by forklifts and loaded onto break bulk vessels by cranes.  


Pallets are flat structures made of wood, plastic, metal, or cardboard and are used to store and transport different types of goods. While commonly used in standard shipping containers, they are also used when shipping break bulk cargo.

Benefits of Using Break Bulk Terminals

Break bulk cargo shipping terminals offer several unique benefits for carriers and shippers compared to bulk cargo or containerized shipping ports. Below, are some of the benefits:

Increased Throughput 

Break bulk terminals facilitate faster throughput as they are specialized in moving break bulk cargo in larger quantities. This is because these terminals are designed to handle specific commodities and packaging.

As a result of utilizing a dedicated terminal, loading equipment, and handlers for storing, moving, and loading, break bulk cargo can be processed faster and safer. Moreover, the entire shipping process is more streamlined since shippers have greater control over every aspect (including packaging and storing) of their supply chain. 

Less Port Congestion

Break bulk terminals are generally smaller than container ports. As a result, they don’t hold vessels that transport containerized cargo. Due to this, carriers face much less port congestion, especially in peak seasons. Moreover, break bulk terminals are usually located further away from the main ports.

More Cost-Effective 

Shipping break bulk cargo is typically more cost-effective for certain types of commodities, as they are directly loaded onto a vessel, instead of in a shipping container (which carries a separate cost).

However, the cost-effectiveness may be occasionally offset by the fact that cargo usually arrives at the terminal in bulk and needs to be packaged accordingly (for example, steel wires are stored in reels, before they are loaded).

Dedicated Break Bulk Services

As these terminals are strategically designed and equipped to handle break bulk cargo, they are able to transport and load them onto vessels efficiently. Equipment found in break bulk ports includes cranes, forklifts, and other essential loading equipment.

Consolidated Schedule

Especially during peak seasons, shipping containers often get rolled (also referred to as container rollovers), due to equipment or space issues from shipping lines. This is much less frequent when shipping break bulk, as cargo is typically moved on chartered vessels, with fewer space and equipment constraints.

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Gerrit Poel

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Gerrit is a certified international supply chain management professional with 16 years of industry experience, having worked for one of the largest global freight forwarders.

As the co-founder of freightcourse, he’s committed to his passion for serving as a source of education and information on various supply chain topics.