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Intermediate bulk container (IBC) 101: the ideal sustainable shipping solution for liquid and dry bulk materials 

An intermediate bulk container (IBC) offers several advantages over traditional shipping containers, drums, and other types of bulk packaging, and can be used in a wide variety of industries, such as food and beverage, pharmaceutical, chemical, oil and gas. 

With rising raw material, labour and transport costs, coupled with supply constraints, there has never been a better time to assess the best industrial packaging solutions to mitigate these challenges. We can help you make the best decision on which bulk containers to choose for your particular business needs. 

In this article, we provide an overview of the different types of IBCs available, dive into the benefits of using them for dry and liquid bulk and answer some common questions about their use.  

We’ll cover: 

What are Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs)?

What are the benefits of using intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) for dry and liquid bulk?

Are intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) clean?

What are the different types of bulk containers?

What are the benefits of foldable containers?

Are plastic bulk containers heavy duty enough to handle my supply chain?

Are plastic bulk containers reusable and recyclable?

What kind of companies are using plastic bulk containers and why?

How much do intermediate bulk containers cost?

Is now a good time to switch from rigid IBCs to plastic ones?

Our bulk container is the ideal solution for transporting liquid and dry bulk materials

What are Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs)? 

IBCs are versatile and reusable containers designed to store, transport, and handle bulk materials. The term ‘intermediate’ comes from the volume that intermediate bulk containers carry, which sits in between that of tanks and drums. So, bulk packaging that’s too small for a tanker load, but too large for a drum (200 litre) or a pail.

Bulk containers are designed to handle large quantities, most commonly 1000 litres, but 500 and 250 litre are also classed as intermediate bulk packaging. They can be rigid, stainless steel or corrugated and provide a safe and efficient means of storage and transport.  

Different bulk container types are needed for storing and transporting dry and liquid bulk and the particular one you need will depend on the type and viscosity of the product being transported, the length and type of transport, filling requirements, discharge method and any specific hygiene or safety requirements. For example, some might need to be foldable in order to save space in storage and transit, others, such as liquid containers can be challenging to fill, so might need specific innovations to make the process more efficient. Visit here to find out which container is right for your needs.  

What are the benefits of using an intermediate bulk container (IBC) for dry and liquid bulk?

Using IBCs provides the following benefits:

  • Size: The ability to ship large quantities of goods, versus their smaller counterparts. 
  • Convenience: IBCs are easy to fill, transport, and empty, and in the case of liquid IBCs have built-in valves and openings for easy access. 
  • Durability and safety: bulk containers are designed to withstand harsh environments, providing a safe and reliable means of transportation and storage.
  • Easier to handle, transport, and store: bulk containers are designed for simple manoeuvrability. They can be moved by forklifts, pallet jacks, or cranes, which make them a more efficient option than traditional containers that require manual handling. 
  • Protection: IBCs are designed to protect dry and liquid bulk products from contamination and damage, ensuring materials remain in top condition during transportation and storage. 
  • Less environmental impact: IBCs are made of durable materials and many are reusable and recyclable, reducing waste and promoting sustainability. 
  • Cost-effectiveness: containers can be reused multiple times as part of a pooling model.  Depending on the material, some can also be stacked, reducing the amount of space needed for transportation, and in turn, reducing overall shipping costs. 

Are intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) clean?

Yes. For industries transporting food or liquid, product containers must meet stringent hygiene standards. In general, IBCs are designed to be easily cleaned and sterilised, so materials are kept contaminant-free.

Plastic containers are non-porous and resistant to moisture, insects, fungi, acids, fats, solvents and odour, so are an extremely hygienic option. Foldable plastic bulk containers are also easier to clean – with more accessible parts and sterile liners for extra protection.

There are several different types of Tosca IBCs to meet the needs of your supply chain

What are the different bulk container types? 

There are several different types of bulk containers available:

Rigid IBCs 

Typically made of HDPE or stainless steel, they are designed to be reused multiple times and can withstand rough handling during transport and storage. It’s important to note, they can take up a large amount of space, and if made from stainless steel, they can’t be stacked for the return trip. If they are rigid, they can only be double stacked.

Flexible IBCs

These are either corrugated or made from a flexible material such as polypropylene or PVC, and are designed for one-time use. They are suitable for transporting non-hazardous liquids in bulk, such as wine, juice, and edible oils.

Composite IBCs 

These are made of a combination of materials, such as steel and plastic, to provide the benefits of both. They are sturdy and can handle heavier loads than plastic bulk containers, while still being lighter and more cost-effective than the steel ones but take up more space like rigid IBCs.

Foldable IBCs 

These are collapsible plastic IBCs that can be folded and stored when not in use, saving space on storage and transport, while still being a great option for lots of different applications. They can be reused many times and are also really easy to clean, so provide one of the most hygienic solutions. 

What benefits do foldable containers provide?

A foldable plastic bulk container offers a wealth of benefits, including: 

  • Lower transport costs (especially for return logistics): foldable and stackable bulk containers have lower transport costs as more can be stacked in a truck. When collapsed, 182 foldable IBCs can be transported in one trip compared to only 40 rigid bulk containers. 
  • Lower upfront investment: businesses looking to transport bulk liquids have seen an increase in the cost of metal bulk containers. Pooled foldable IBCs are a better solution from an operational and financial point of view and don’t require a significant upfront investment.  
  • Reduced product waste: for products such as viscous liquids (e.g., nut butters, custards, and pastes), rigid IBCs can create more food waste as it’s difficult to extract all the product from the container. With bag-in-box foldable IBC solutions, specialised squeeze systems can extract 0,1 to 0,2 percent residual of the product out, significantly reducing waste.  
  • Space saving: seven foldable IBCs can take up the same amount of space as one rigid metal cage IBC with a plastic bladder inside, so they’re much more space efficient. 
  • Built for automation: because plastic containers are moulded, the sizes and weights are always consistent, causing minimal disturbances in your automated material handling systems. Folding and unfolding can also be done by just one operator. 
  • Easy to clean: Many containers are made with an easy-to-clean polymer that resists moisture, insects, and fungi. Plastic bulk containers can also be equipped with liners that provide a sterile barrier for aseptic filling, so products stay clean and safe. 
  • Sustainability: foldable plastic IBCs can be fully recycled at the end of their service life, reducing their life cycle environmental impact. Couple this with lower transport emissions and less waste and you get a fully sustainable solution. 

Are plastic bulk containers heavy duty enough to handle my supply chain?

Generally, plastic IBCs are designed to be durable and withstand the rigors of transportation and storage. They’re often made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is a tough and resilient plastic material that can handle a wide range of products, including chemicals, food, and pharmaceuticals.

However, not all plastic IBCs are created equal. When choosing the right IBC for your supply chain, consider the thickness of the plastic walls, the quality of the seams and joints, and the strength of the valve and fittings. 

It’s a good idea to consult with a supplier or manufacturer of plastic IBCs to make sure you select the right container for your needs. 

Are plastic bulk containers reusable and recyclable?

Yes. Bulk containers can be reused many times as long as they remain in good condition and meet the necessary safety standards. After each use, they can be cleaned and sanitised, making them a cost-effective and environmentally friendly option for many industries.

Additionally, many bulk containers are made from recyclable materials, such as HDPE plastic or stainless steel. When an IBC reaches the end of its useful life, it can be recycled and the materials can be repurposed into new products, helping to reduce waste and conserve resources.

Companies are opting for IBCs due to their numerous benefits over traditional shipping containers

What kind of companies opt for a plastic bulk container and why?

It’s no surprise from the extensive benefits listed above, that bulk plastic containers are used by a wide range of industries and for various products, including:

  • Food and beverage, such as juices, syrups, oils, purees and pastes  
  • Chemicals, such as acids, bases, and solvents 
  • Pharmaceuticals, such as liquid ingredients and finished products 
  • Agriculture, such as fertilisers, pesticides, and other agricultural chemicals 
  • Cosmetics and personal care, such as fragrances and lotions 
  • Waste management, including hazardous and non-hazardous waste

The main reasons why these companies use plastic IBCs are for their durability, cost-effectiveness, and environmental friendliness. They can withstand the rigors of transportation and storage and can also be reused and recycled, which make them ideal for businesses looking to achieve sustainability goals. 

What’s the cost of an intermediate bulk container (IBC)?

Costs of bulk containers vary depending on the material, size and any additional features or accessories. The cost of a new plastic IBC can range from around €80 to €400 depending on the spec, but stainless-steel IBCs are typically more expensive, with costs ranging from around €900 to €2,700. 

However, the total cost of a bulk container should be viewed in the context of its overall value to your business. For example, a heavier material costs more to ship, and a lower-priced IBC might save you money upfront but may not be as durable or long-lasting as a higher-priced one and might need to be replaced more frequently. Additionally, shipping and handling costs, as well as taxes and tariffs will have an impact on the final cost. Non-stackable containers will cost more to ship on the return journey as they can’t be folded down.  

Businesses looking to transport bulk liquids have seen the price of metal IBCs increase in recent times, posing a challenge for companies looking to control costs and remain competitive.

A pooling model allows companies to use high quality returnable bulk containers without the upfront cost of buying them, so they are a better solution from an operational and sustainability point of view. Companies can redirect capital expenditures elsewhere, enhance their financial flexibility and focus valuable resources where they are needed most. 

Next steps for making the switch to plastic foldable IBCs

For companies facing mounting pressure to meet sustainability goals and obligations as well as cost-savings, making the switch to intermediate bulk containers can make a real impact. 

Tosca’s pooled and rented reusable bulk containers are trusted to offer an environmentally friendly, hygienic and space-efficient solution that can help companies achieve their sustainability goals while enhancing supply chain efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Couple this with lower transport emissions and less waste and you get a truly sustainable solution.

At Tosca, we know supply chains top to bottom and have been a trusted partner for suppliers and manufacturers over the past 60 years, providing our expertise to help them achieve efficiency and sustainability. Our robust product portfolio, unmatched customer service and strong network of service centres worldwide help you to make the transition to plastic bulk containers as seamless as possible.  

Plus, with more than 20 years working with reusable bulk containers, we can easily identify the right product for you based on your technical requirements, and work collaboratively with you to implement a new solution.  

Not only do we make the process easy, but we guarantee that your supply chain will be changed for the better by switching to reusable bulk containers.  

The world is looking to leaders like you to make sustainable decisions, and your leadership is expecting you to improve the bottom line.

To learn more about how you can do both with one switch
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To learn more about how you can do both with one switch