Intermediate bulk containers (IBC), (IBC tote, IBC tank or pallet tanks), are reusable, multi-use industrial container that have been engineered for the mass handling, transport and storage of liquids, pastes or solids. The two main categories are flexible (FIBC) and rigid IBCs.
Intermediate bulk containers are stackable, reusable, versatile containers with an integrated pallet base mount that provides forklift and/or pallet jack maneuverability. IBCs have a volume range that is in-between that of standard shipping drums and intermodal tank containers; hence the title: “intermediate“ bulk container. These containers can be made from metal, plastic or composite material.
A standard FIBC can hold 1100 to 2200 lb and manufacturers offer bags with a volume of 10-100ft³.
General IBC tank capacities are generally 275 to 330 U.S. gallons. IBCs are shipping containers that have been UN / DOT certified for the shipping of hazardous and non-hazardous, packing group II and packing group III commodities. IBCs are manufactured according to federal regulations, many are NSF / ANSI 61 certified as well as IMDG approved, for domestic and maritime transport. Metal IBC tanks are manufactured according to NFPA and UL142 certification standards for extensive storage of materials labeled as flammable and/or combustible.
Intermediate bulk containers can be manufactured from various materials based on the requirements of the application or service the IBC will be used for. Traditional materials include:
- Plastic (High-Density Polyethylene)
- Composite: Galvanized Steel & Plastic
- Carbon Steel
- Stainless Steel (304 & 316/316L SS grades)
The most widely utilized and known IBC is the limited re-use caged IBC. Caged totes are composite IBCs—a white/translucent plastic container (typically high-density polyethylene) contained and protected by a tubular galvanized steel grid. Caged IBC totes are commonly used due to their low cost, wide compatibility, and versatility.
In addition to the above materials, intermediate bulk containers can also be made of fiberboard, wood, aluminum, and folding plastic. Folding IBCs are also made of heavy plastic. Their sides fold inward when the unit is empty allowing the IBC to collapse into a much smaller package for return shipment or storage. Flexible intermediate bulk containers, made of woven polyethylene or polypropylene bags, are designed for storing or transporting dry, flowable products, such as sand, fertilizer, and plastic granules. Almost all rigid IBCs are designed so they can be stacked vertically one atop the other using a forklift. Most have a built-in tap (valve, spigot, or faucet) at the base of the container to which hoses can be attached, or through which the contents can be poured into smaller containers.
Most IBCs are cube-shaped and this cube-shaped engineering contributes to the packaging, stacking, storing, shipping, and overall space efficiency of intermediate bulk containers. When compared to palletized drums, IBC tanks are capable of carrying equivalent volumes in less shipping space and in significantly less steps, both manufacturing and logistic. One 275 gallon IBC is the volume and footprint equivalent to five (5) 55-US-gallon (208 L; 46 imp gal) drums, and a single 330-gallon IBC is the equivalent to six (6) 55 gallon drums while maintaining a single pallet’s dimensions. This is an increase in space utilization as:
- 4 Drums = 1 Pallet
- 1 IBC = 1 Pallet
- 1 275 Gallon IBC = 5 Drums
- 5 Drums = 1.25 Pallets
- 1 330 Gallon IBC = 6 Drums
- 6 Drums = 1.5 Pallets
Demonstrating an increase in shipping / packing efficiency, especially when considering use of multiple IBC tanks: four (4) 330 gallon IBCs would be the equivalent of twenty-four (24) 55-gallon drums and six (6) pallets. IBCs can be manufactured to a customer’s exact requirements in terms of capacity, dimensions, and material. The length and width of an IBC are usually dependent on the pallet dimension standard of a given country.
There are many advantages of the IBC concept:
- Being cubic in form, they can transport more material in the same footprint compared to cylindrical-shaped containers, and far more than might be shipped in the same space compared to packaging in consumer quantities.
- Composite IBCs rely on plastic liners that can be filled and discharged with a variety of systems.
- The manufacturer/processor of a product can bulk package a product in one country and ship to many other countries at a reasonably low cost where it is subsequently packaged in final consumer form in accordance with the regulations of that country and in a form and language suitable for that country.
- IBCs may ship and store:
- Bulk materials including hazardous materials or dangerous goods
- Commodities and raw materials used in industrial production
- Liquid, granulated, and powdered food ingredients
- Food syrups, such as corn syrup or molasses
- Petroleum products, such as oil, gas, solvents, detergents, or adhesives
- Rainwater when used for rooftop rainwater collection
- Used IBCs are the basic building blocks for many home aquaponic systems
- Paints and industrial coatings
Intermediate bulk containers may be purchased or leased. Bar code and RFID tracking systems are available with associated software.
An IBC can be purchased as a new unit (bottle and cage), a rebottled unit (new bottle and washed cage) or a washed unit (both bottles and cages have been washed). A washed unit is typically less expensive, with the new unit being the most expensive, and the rebottled unit near the mid-point. In many cases, a customer may purchase a mix (“blend”) of these types of units under a single price, to simplify the accounting.
The customer’s choice of unit primarily depends on either actual or perceived sensitivity of their product to contamination, and the overall ability to clean their specific product type from the bottle. Those with a lower contamination risk are prime candidates for the washed units. With the exception of products produced in “clean rooms” (GMP – good manufacturing practices), the decision of a washed over a new is usually a matter of availability or appearance.
An IBC can be leased in a closed-loop (using only the IBCs which were used by a given customer and washed or rebottled) or the most common open-loop system (where the origin of the rebottled or wash unit is flexible). For plastic composite units, the trip lease[further explanation needed] has largely been replaced by a blended purchase.
When exposed to fire, plastic IBCs containing combustible or flammable liquids may melt or burn rapidly, releasing their entire contents and increasing the fire hazard by the sudden addition of combustible fuel.
For metal IBCs, test reports by the German Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prüfung (BAM) show that a metal IBC can withstand fire for at least 30 minutes, if it is equipped with a pressure venting device.