IBC usage in the Food Industry

The Intermediate Bulk Container (IBC) is a mid-sized storage container used to ship solids, liquids and everything in between. Initially created to solve problems of weight and efficiency in the shipping industry, IBCs come in a wide range of designs and purposes. This versatility is especially useful in the food industry, where convenient stacking and storage options that follow food regulations can be difficult to find. The IBC has become a recent hero in the food industry, helping producers to keep the costs of shipping and storage low in order to minimize the overall costs of goods. While many industries have been positively affected by the invention of the IBC, it’s clear that the food industry is one of those that has gained the most. Read below to learn more about Intermediate Bulk Containers and how they’ve positively affected shipping in the food industry.

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How the IBC Came About

The IBC was first invented to solve several problems with existing containers in the shipping industry. Early shipping containers, such as wooden barrels and metal drums, were crafted into round shapes. Even when packed tightly, these containers couldn’t utilize space well, and this design inefficiency limited the amount of goods that could be shipped in each load. Even a shipping container that was built in a more efficient shape, like a wooden crate, was limited, as it was made of high density, heavy wood. The weight of the wooden crates limited the number that could be carried at once despite the optimization of the crate’s shape. Regardless of the option that shipping companies chose, manufacturers were required to make sacrifices regarding the cargo in question.

Shipping options began to change with the invention of plastic. The lighter weight of the new material made it ideal as a storage and shipping option, but many types of plastic lacked the strength or rigidity to withstand travel over long distances. With the discovery of polyethylene in the 1960s, manufacturers began to consider plastic for shipping, as the sturdier plastic was more resistant to puncturing and general damage than its forebears had been. Despite this, the plastic needed structure beyond its own to really shine. Polyethylene shipping containers found their true match in a steel cage structure after the patenting of the IBC in the early 1990s. Since then, these shipping containers have continued to evolve, becoming the option to best optimize both space and weight in shipping.

Further Evolution of the IBC

In the years since the patenting of the IBC, shipping needs have continued to change, and the IBC has changed with them. One example of this evolution can be found in the relationship between IBCs and food. While the food industry also had to manage the concerns of weight and space, they had other problems to address. Food producers were looking for containers that allowed them to not only ship food efficiently but to store it without the food going bad. Further, manufacturers had to be able to guarantee that products had not been contaminated with allergens or other substances. Containers used for shipping food had to be sturdy, space-efficient, and keep goods contained.

With these goals in mind, designers created containers that not only helped achieve peak cleanliness in food but also prevented contamination by allergens. To do so, manufacturers provided the option to fully customize a container for the needs of the product. Customers could choose from materials such as High-Density Polyethylene, a BPA free and FDA approved plastic, as well as stainless steel cages which would not rust. With the goals of the food industry in mind, manufacturers created containers fit for storing food efficiently while preventing contamination of the goods inside.

Different Types of IBC

Because they are intended to serve a variety of purposes, IBC containers can be found in many shapes and sizes. Despite this tendency toward the unique, an IBC container must fulfill a set of standards to earn the title of Intermediate Bulk Container. These standardized characteristics include:

  • Size: A true IBC must fit a certain size range and capacity. A typical IBC is around 114.3 cm by 114.3 cm and varies in height. Containers can hold as few as 400 litres (the capacity of a standard shipping drum) and as many as 3000 litres (the capacity of an intermodal tank container). Anything outside of this range can no longer be considered intermediate.
  • Shape: An IBC must be generally cubic in shape. This allows for easy stacking by a forklift as well as tight packing of containers. Because of its cubic design, the IBC can ship more material for lower costs than the average pallet can while using the same amount of space.
  • Composition: An IBC typically has two pieces (the liner or bottle and the cage or pallet piece) which allows for easy replacement of the lining container. Minimizing the number of parts that need to be replaced before the next bout of shipping lowers costs overall. Additionally, IBCs possess a spout near the base which can be attached to a hose for easy and clean emptying.

Beyond these characteristics, IBCs vary widely in appearance and purpose, though they can be easily separated into two distinct categories: Rigid IBCs and Flexible IBCs. Each category serves a specific purpose and provides a distinct solution to the problems of the shipping and food industries.

Traits of an RIBC

The Rigid IBC (RIBC) is likely the container that comes to mind when picturing an IBC. With its plastic bottle liner and steel mesh cage, the RIBC provides a lightweight and easily recyclable option to people shipping and storing food. Because of its durability and design, the RIBC is ideal for liquid transport and storage, and the replaceable liner and recycling systems help cut costs, making the RIBC highly popular for vendors and consumers alike in the food industry.

The RIBC is also ideal for food transport because of its materials. The plastic bottle piece is crafted from Polyethylene, a highly durable plastic, which makes it a strong candidate for liquid storage. Additionally, the metal cage causes the container to be sturdy enough for stacking, even when fully loaded with a heavy substance. The cage itself is generally made from stainless steel to prevent rusting, which could contaminate the materials being shipped. Versatility is the ideal trait of the RIBC, as everything from the metal of the cage to the material of the bottle lining can be customized as needed.

Traits of an FIBC

While it serves many of the same purposes, the FIBC looks little like its rigid cousin. Made of woven Polyethylene fabric, the Flexible IBC is intended to move with products, allowing for closely packed storage of the filled bags. The cube-shaped bag is highly sturdy and useful for shipping solids that flow, such as cement and plastics. While the bag itself is designed to flex, it is often reinforced with varied sturdy materials, such as lightweight wood, aluminum, and plastics. These ensure that even with the heaviest loads, the bag will not stretch or tear.

Because of its design and materials, the FIBC also tends to be a popular shipping choice in the food industry. Each bag is finished with loops on the top to allow for easy lifting and stacking and is finished with a spout mechanism on the bottom for clean pouring. As an added benefit, the bag collapses to become flat when empty, allowing for easy shipping and storage. The same traits that make the FIBC popular in the construction and plastic industries have made this bag one of the top choices in the food industry as well.

Foods Shipped by RIBC

If you regularly sip bottled water, cook your food in oil, or enjoy the occasional glass of wine, it’s likely you’ve benefited directly from the use of an RIBC. As these lightweight containers are designed to minimize sloshing during travel, pour cleanly, and be resistant to punctures, RIBCs are one of the top choices when it comes to shipping liquid or semi-liquid goods in the food industry. Here are a few foods that frequently rely on RIBCs in the shipping process.

Drinking Water

Many people take clean drinking water for granted, but in cases when finding clean drinking water requires more than turning on the tap, the RIBC has proven to be a literal lifesaver. Often the unsung hero of disaster relief, the RIBC packs tightly and contains clean water in a food-grade and sanitary bottle, ensuring that everyone in the vicinity has enough water to drink despite space limitations.

Alcoholic Beverages

It’s common to see wine already bottled, so most don’t consider the storage and transfer that must take place before alcohol hits the shelves of your local grocery store. Many wineries and breweries rely on IBC containers for sterile storage and shipping of liquids in varying stages of the fermentation process. You can thank the RIBC for keeping your favorite Pinot Noir in your price range.


If you enjoy maple syrup on your pancakes, you might appreciate knowing that it likely once called an RIBC its home. Maple sap is often stored in a large capacity RIBC before hitting the evaporator, and some producers are even willing to sell the finished syrup in bulk via RIBCs. Similarly, producers of corn syrup and molasses are known to choose RIBC containers to minimize costs in shipping while protecting goods from contamination.

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Foods Shipped by FIBC

Even if you made it your habit to avoid eating sweet syrups and drinking alcohol, you’ve almost certainly eaten food that’s been transported by an FIBC. These foods are typically those which can be stored dry and flow loosely, such as powders. Here are some examples of foods that rely on FIBC shipping and storage.

Granulated Foods

Materials like sugar, salt, and starch are often shipped using an FIBC container, as the flexibility allows the granulated goods to flow and fill every nook and cranny. This creates dense, cubic bags which can be packed very tightly as well as stacked, resulting in highly optimized space during shipping.

Grains and Legumes

Farmers often rely on FIBCs to ship their harvests, especially when they are situated far from water and a port. In locations where there is no immediate access to a port, farmers rely on railway shipping to transport and sell goods, which can be costly. FIBCs allow farmers to optimize their shipments of grain across long distances, and the savings help them to reap fully from each harvest.

Pharmaceutical Drugs

While not necessarily a food source, pharmaceutical drugs fall under the category of consumable goods. FIBCs are frequently used not only for shipping, but also for storage and mixing of certain drug types. Contamination is especially dangerous when it comes to medicine, as contaminants can change both the potency and the effects of the substance. FIBCs become the obvious shipping choice to prevent this potential danger, and optimizing the space necessary to ship medicine helps to keep costs down and make treatment more accessible.

Why Food Production Needs IBCs

While IBCs solve problems in many arenas, they are widely necessary for the food industry. IBCs help manufacturers ship efficiently, store products without food loss or destruction, and prevent contamination from allergens. Further, they optimize a costly industry and minimize the costs of shipping and storage, benefiting both the producer and consumer. Next time you make a trip to the grocery store or prepare a meal at home, be sure to take a moment to appreciate the subtle benefits that IBC containers provide.

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