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Break-bulk cargo ports in mainland China

Break-bulk or general cargoes usually refer to those that can be counted piece by piece. According to the forms of their packing, break-bulk cargoes can be sorted into packed cargoes and unpacked cargoes, the former refer to those which are transported in bags, packages/bales, cases/cartoons/crates etc, while the latter refer to those which are transported either unpacked or those that cannot be packed. With the development of containerised transportation, most traditional breakbulk cargoes nowadays are transported in containers. Consequently, fleets and ports for break-bulk cargoes are undergoing a process of decline all over the world. Mainland China is also witnessing the same change, although the absolute number of its general berths for breakbulk cargoes is still increasing (Table 1). Also in Table 1, we can see that the percentages of general berths for breakbulk cargoes keep decreasing, from 20% (322/1602) of year 2011 to 18.95%  (345/1821) of year 2013.In terms of the China Ports & Harbors Association, which was founded in 1981, among its over ten departments and branches – including those for container cargoes, oil, cruise ships and so on – there is no branch for break-bulk cargoes.

Developing trends

Before the commencement of containerisation and some other special techniques for cargo transport and handling, break-bulk cargoes played a significant role in the shipping and port market in mainland China. In pace with the booming of container transport, Ro-Ro (roll on/roll off ) transport and some other special means of transport, the market share of ports for breakbulk cargoes begins shrinking and fragmenting. Figures 1, 2, and 3 show the throughput percentages (in tons) of different types of cargoes in ports of mainland China in the past three years. As mentioned above, most traditional break-bulk cargoes are carried in containers at present, as long as they are feasible for containerisation, which can also be proved by the tremendous progress of China’s container fleet and terminals in recent decades. Other special cargoes are handled in progressively professional ways, eg more and more vehicles, as commodities, are carried on board mega Ro-Ro vessels and handled at specially-equipped Ro-Ro terminals. Awkward cargoes, sometimes also known as project cargoes, the sizes and/or weights of which take them beyond the capacity of containers, currently still rely on the traditional way of port handling, with the help of modern, jumbo port machinery.

Major problems and solutions

The emergence of modern logistical techniques has posed big challenges for the development of traditional break-bulk cargo ports. In mainland China, many break-bulk cargo ports are confronted with problems and difficulties, eg outdated operating techniques, huge differences in cargo packing, polarisation of the port’s human resources, and low port charges and profit rates. Taking into account such typical problems, pertinent solutions are put forward. First, advanced semi-automatic or automatic handling techniques should be properly updated, information management systems should be duly developed, and experience from automatic container terminals should, with time, be introduced. Second, standardisation of packing, groupage and unitisation should be encouraged, which can considerably reduce port labour intensity, make full use of port machinery, increase port operating efficiency, shorten the turnover period of vessels and vehicles, facilitate tally and taking- or handing-over of cargoes

Dr Yin Ming, Associate Professor of International Shipping Management, Shanghai Maritime University

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