Big Bags – The “Other” Break Bulk

When we speak of break bulk these days, the majority of people tend to think of heavy lifts, bulky, out of guage etc.

This wasn’t always the case of course as, in the old , pre containerisation days, everything was break bulk  and , in the very old days, the majority of goods were shipped in barrels which were designed to be easily rolled , including up gangplanks and contained everything from fruit , grains , flour, wines and water, pickled meats , nails and even gunpowder.

As packaging methods developed and were refined, wooden crates , cardboard (fibreboard) boxes, metal barrels / drums and later plastic packagings of all sorts became commonly used. Hessian sacks were replaced with plastic sacks and as cargoes became larger with the globalisation of international trade, methods had to be found of simplifying the carriage of large volumes of small packages. Fibres (eg wool , cotton Etc) and leaves (eg tobacco) were shipped in bales and so were shipments of woodpulp and paper. Rolls , reels , bundles etc became commonplace and , towards the middle of the last century, pallets , pallet boxes etc were invented which followed on the consequent invention of forklift trucks , pallet handlers and the like.

Then, in the early 1970’s containerisation came along and reduced everything to convenient homogenous boxes which had major advantages – for products that fitted and were of small enough quantities to be reasonably handled.

Bulk powders  such as chemicals ,fertilisers,ferro alloys and other minerals continued to be shipped in bulk and larger shipments of these of course , still are, but the intermediate size shipments and products which were hygroscopic or :friable (fragile) in nature were somewhat left out in the cold in that it took too many containers or too much time to palletise the quantities involved and so the “big bag”(or as the Australians call it “the bulka bag” )was born. Or to give them their correct technical name the Flexible , Intermediate Bulk Container (FIBC).Sample_148 (2)

FIBC’s are an extremely practical and useful form of unitisation and can be adapted to both containerised and breakbulk use.

They have been used in units of 0.5T to 2 T regularly (and sizes outside of this range as well).

They are suitable for most modes of transport ie rail , road truck, air and ships. They are easily handled by forklift, overhead mobile hoist, various cranes, hand pallet truck etc and facilitate fairly fast load and discharge rates. They also come in various form and designs. The simplest is the single or double loop top lift bag which entails a simple circular weave which is then sewn shut at the bottom and a loop designed on top. Others are more square in design and have four loops (one on each upper corner), These loops are usually attached in the last stages of manufacture and are constructed of the same polywoven material , usually of a denser weave and different colour to the bag , which is securely sewn into the bag. The four loops are usually much shorter than the single loop pattern and facilitate ease of handling by forklift to enable stuffing into containers.

For hygroscopic substances and fine powders, the outer poly woven bag is often fitted with an inner liner of dense sheeted plastic. This can be loose fitted inside or sometimes bonded to the polywoven material. There are a number of variations on this which I will not go into here.

Some even have fitted forklift pockets.

Big Bags are a very useful concept but , unfortunately , a number of companies have “given up “on them as they did not understand the correct useage of them. I personally have had the privilege of shipping very many thousands of tons of product all over the world and will attempt to pass on some of these lessons I learned. The following section will attempt to give some guidelines on this.


Remember – in international trade , you often only get 1 “last chance”- the first one!

The IMDG Code has excellent guidelines on FIBC’s (blue and orange books) – familiarise yourself with these and follow these guidelines , even if your product is safer than talcum powder! Bags which do not follow any standards are usually designed for static use – ie for storage in a warehouse with minimal handling.

Never accept “”minimum “ tolerances – these are often set far too low and , on top of that, you may find the manufacturers going slightly below these – eg the tolerance may be “10” units – the manufacturer may measure 9.7 and reckon that that is “close enough” whereas the minimum they should be looking at is 12.5! (numbers used for illustration purposes only and are meaningless).

Use a recognised testing agency to ensure that the bags are of adequate quality to ensure that your customer receives a perfect shipment .Likewise with the printing, ensure that all required markings , especially IMO required compulsory marks for haz goods as well as the UN packaging marks and your own branding are of good qualitySample_14 (2)

Get all relevant departments on board ie manufacturing , purchasing and sales a/o to ensire that everyone is speaking the same language. If your supplier insists that your standards are ridiculous or cant be met – get another supplier!

Ensure manufacturing and packaging staff maintain the standard – do not over fill or under fill the bags and ensure that they are properly sealed.

Transport units – whether container , rail truck or road truck – always inspect the interior to ensure that there are no jagged projections which may tear bags.

If required , line the floor and interior sides whith cardboard “dunnage”board or other suitable material.

If wet weather is expected en route , cover with suitable tarpaulins – even if your product is “water proof”- it is unlikely the ship or aircraft will allow wet cargo to be loaded and this may cost you demurrage while waiting for the cargo to dry.


Bags must be handled only by fully engaging ALL loops properly. If forklifts are being used – if possible / available , use “torpedos”(ie tubular covers) over the fork tines or special tubular tines. The flat – pallet tines have sharp edges which can slice the loops either completely or partially so that when attempting to lift them by crane, they snap and crash into the docks , sea or ships tank top with disasterous results – this can cause delays putting you into demurrage and deadfreight if you then don’t have sufficient cargo to honour your commitment. If only flat tines are available, pad these using cardboard wrapped with duct tape or some other protective material.

Void rough handling and adhere to maximum stacking height – both ashore and on board.


When lifting , using either ships or shore gear:

  • Never allow the hooks to directly contact the bags. Use rope or webbing slings and NEVER allow hooks to rest on the bags.
  • Carefully inspect the holds for any projectins which may tear or otherwise damage the bags an pad any of the using cardboard or other soft material. If holds are dirty – carefully sweep them out before loading. If necessary , line the floors and wall of the holds (up to 1 m ) with plastic or cardboard sheeting to keep the bags clean and make recovering any spillage a bit easier.
  • Stow bags as tightly as practical.
  • Do not exceed marked packing tiers of bags
  • Adhere to any IMO segregation and stowage rules for dangerous goods.
  • Ensure bags are properly and adequately lashed to ensure stability and avoid collapse of stow during the voyage.
  • Avoid “snatch”or “drag “lifts
  • Lower bags into centre of hatches before slewing to sides for stowing. Avoid any deck projections and hatch coamings.
  • Ensure any pontoons are properly placed and that the bags do not exceed the permitted deck strength allowances.
  • Follow similar procedures when discharging.
  • Load about 10 – 15 empty “ over bags” properly marked . into top of the stow before closing up to allow for recovery of any damage when discharging.
  • Do not , under ANY circumstances,allow baling hooks anywhere near bulk bags.
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