In the shipping industry the collective noun "break-bulk" is used to refer to non-containerised cargo. Usually, that means large machinery and non-uniform cargo that won't fit well in a container or would require complicated disassembly in order to do so, but also includes any cargo that is not containerised. (Most of the world's shipped cargo is containerised.)

The shipping company I work at handles a large amount of non-containerised pallets (of fruit commodities--some pallets are containerised, some not; I'm not sure why), large rolls of steel and paper, steel barrels of liquids, plates of steel, and other cargo. We don't have a general term that we can use to generically refer to any specific piece of cargo, which hasn't been a problem in the past, but now that we are consolidating all of our reporting tools into one multi-purpose set of tools, it is. Our old tools were specific to each commodity so we were able to use each term specifically (e.g. pallets), but this won't work with our new generic reporting tools.

Note that "break-bulk" is a collective noun that refers to all pieces of break-bulk. To my knowledge, there is no form of the term that can refer to a specific piece or pieces of break-bulk. (i.e. "One break-bulk" doesn't make any sense.)

Is there a term or word that we can use that refers to one or more pieces of break-bulk? So far, we've come up with "cargo unit", "main cargo unit" (as there are also sub-cargo units in the case of pallets), "typical unit", and "cargo measure", but none of them are particularly elegant or intuitive.

The air-freight industry has the term "Unit Load Device" (ULD), but that refers to the very specific metal, pallet-like containers that are built to very specific dimensions to fit tightly in airplanes and doesn't really fit our purposes.

  • What is wrong with "break-bulk item"? Sep 11 '15 at 21:16
  • @PeterShor: It's awkward, that's what. Example usage: "Vessel Sunshine Storm (3843 break-bulk items)". Furthermore, even though it's an industry term, it is never used this way, and users will be confused (at first, anyway). Right now where it fits we're using "3843 records" as a placeholder (this is in a table where each row is a record of a piece of cargo), but we may continue using it. Alternative: programmatically determine which commodity is being used and display the appropriate term (pallet, roll, etc.). I didn't include all this in the question as this isn't StackOverflow or UX.SE.
    – user128216
    Sep 11 '15 at 21:27

Perhaps I'm not understanding the question. The definition at BusinessDictionary.com,

Consisting of several individual small and different sized items, loads, or units.

suggests that, depending on the cargo, 'item', 'load' or 'unit' would be appropriate; add 'cargo' if need be: 'load cargo', 'item cargo', 'unit cargo'.

Also, the definition (op. cit.) of 'breakbulk cargo' provides another approach:

Packaged but non-containerized cargo. Loose cement, grains, ores, etc., are termed bulk cargo, whereas cargo shipped as a unit (bags, bales, barrels, boxes, cartons, drums, pallets, sacks, vehicles, etc.) is termed break bulk.

This suggests that, again depending on the cargo, any of "bags, bales, barrels, boxes, cartons, drums, pallets, sacks, vehicles, etc." might be appropriate; as before, add 'cargo' if need be: 'bag cargo', 'barrel cargo', 'carton cargo', etc.

  • I guess I wasn't clear enough. What I wanted was a way to refer to any of barrels, pallets, rolls, etc. in such a way that it is quantifiable. For instance, there might be a summation of barrels AND rolls AND pallets. There are plenty of ways to do this, but none that don't sound awkward to my (our) ears and isn't ambiguous. "Break-bulk" isn't quantifiable on its own, and pallet, roll, etc, is too specific to one type of commodity. This isn't just for the reports, mind you. We also want a quantifiable noun that we can use consistently in spoken and written communication. We need to give...
    – user128216
    Sep 11 '15 at 22:05
  • ...this concept a name that can be used for any type of commodity. The problem with terms like "cargo unit" is that they are ambiguous. They could refer to a container, or a pallet, or one case on a pallet... "pallet", and "roll" are to-the-point and impossible to misunderstand. That's what I'm looking for.
    – user128216
    Sep 11 '15 at 22:08
  • @FighterJet, okay, what seems to be in use in the industry is "breakbulk piece". I take it your (plural) obection to that is that it "sounds awkward"?
    – JEL
    Sep 11 '15 at 22:09
  • That might work. But yes, it seems awkward, and long (365 pallets : 365 break-bulk pieces). Let me try it out and see what my colleagues think of it...
    – user128216
    Sep 11 '15 at 22:12
  • @FighterJet, I'm having a hard time imagining your range of contexts, but I suspect that in most if not all of those the context implies "breakbulk", which could therefore be omitted; what I don't know is whether or not "pieces" is also used to refer to individual containers, or cargo other than breakbulk. Either of the those circumstances could throw a monkeywrench into using 'pieces' alone (with 'breakbulk' implied).
    – JEL
    Sep 12 '15 at 6:04

The term is the handling unit. A handling unit is any piece of cargo that is individually handled. The term is used by multinational corporations. A Google search will turn up documents released by FedEx, Oracle, SAP, UPS, YRC, etc. that all define and use the term essentially in this way. One representative definition is “each piece or unit of freight tendered to the carrier for shipment that requires separate handling”.¹

Regarding your idea of cargo units contained in main cargo units, note that handling units can and often do contain other handling units, and business applications such as SAP R/3 are designed to model this, so you are on the right track.

For example, 2200 gallons of fuel oil might be

  (i) unitized and warehoused as 40 55-gallon drums,
  (ii) further unitized as 10 pallets of 4 drums for overland carriage to port, and
  (iii) further combined into one 20-foot shipping container.

In this example, the warehouse manager is handling drums, the overland carrier is handling pallets, and the the vessel is handling containers.

When aggregating, what counts as a handling unit depends on your purpose. It sounds as if for your purpose you count the unit (other than a container) that gets individually loaded on and off the vessel. In your reporting system, then, you could refer to any such individually loaded drum, coil, pallet, carton, etc., as a handling unit and report an aggregate quantity handled as [N] handling units.


You may use the following shipment terms:

  • Loose cargo: freight which is neither containerized nor unitized.

  • Bulk shipments: Shipments which are not packaged, but are loaded directly into the vessel's holds. Examples of commodities that can be shipped in bulk are ores, coal, scrap, iron, grain, rice, vegetable oil, tallow, fuel oil, fertilizers, and similar commodities.

  • Bulkfreight: Freight not in packages or containers.

  • LCL, i.e. Less than Container Load: A term used to describe the transportation of small ocean freight shipments not requiring the full capacity of an ocean container – Usually less than 20 CBM (cubic meters). A freight forwarder may create a “Consolidation” by putting together multiple LCL shipments.

  • None of these answer my question. I specifically stated that I am looking for a term that refers to one or more pieces of bulk-break individually (i.e. is not a collective noun) and covers the examples I gave. Thanks, anyway.
    – user128216
    Sep 11 '15 at 21:58
  • @FighterJet - are you looking for expressions as "break-bulk goods", "break-bulk material" or "break-bulk parcel" ?
    – Graffito
    Sep 11 '15 at 22:09
  • @FighterJet The OED defines break bulk as P1. to break bulk (cf. sense 2e): ‘to open the hold and take out goods thence’ ( Capt. Smith's Seaman's Gram. 1692); to destroy the completeness of a cargo by taking out a portion, to begin to unload. Note that it dates from 1692, long before the sea container was invented.
    – WS2
    Sep 11 '15 at 23:08
  • "Freight item" is often used in shipment tracking. Then, bulk freight item is a possibility.
    – Graffito
    Sep 11 '15 at 23:37

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