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A Concise Guide to IBCs

By Kevin Kling |

When properly selected and stored, intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) can be used to safely transport products in the chemical process industries

Demand within the global market for rigid intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) has grown at a steady rate in recent years with the rising need to transport liquids, such as food, fuels, chemicals and hazardous materials. Chemical and pharmaceutical industries are the major end users of IBCs, with growing investment in the chemical industry being a contributing factor in the increase in demand.

A major growth driver in the IBC market is the cost-effective transportation and storage, ease of maintenance, and reusability afforded by this industrial packaging type. IBCs are particularly suited to the chemical industry, as they can safely transport a variety of solid or liquid products, including materials requiring safe handling, as well as those identified as hazardous or dangerous.


The main properties of IBCs

IBCs are rigid, self-standing vessels made from metal, fiberboard or plastic material (Figure 1). The typical volume is 275 gal although there are specialty versions available ranging from 119 up to 793 gal. The construction typically consists of a base pallet with a bulk tank attached. The most widely used IBCs within the chemical industry are those with a bulk tank or bottle made from plastic material — typically a high density polyethylene (HDPE) — which is then protected by a durable galvanized outer steel frame. The bulk tank usually includes a fill port with a cap along with a valve for emptying. There may also be requirements for service equipment, such as a pressure-relief valve when filling substances such as organic peroxides or products that are filled at high temperatures.

Figure 1. IBCs come in a variety of sizes and materials of construction. The one shown here is designed for maximized space, and can be stacked, depending on the weight


Packaging standards and symbols

IBCs must be manufactured to adhere to strict standards in order to ensure the integrity of the product. These include U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) compliance for plastic resins and additives in 21 CFR, religious requirements for Kosher and Halal, no deleterious substances in the materials of construction, REACH (Restriction, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) compliance, and U.S. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) performance packaging).

The packaging symbols on an IBC are an important consideration when looking at the storage and transportation of chemicals. There are two symbols used to denote the type of chemicals that can be stored in an IBC; UN and Non-UN. If an IBC is embossed with the letters “UN”, it is suitable for storing hazardous goods, such as corrosive chemicals. IBC tanks that have a “Non-UN” approval are suitable for non-hazardous bulk chemical storage only.

The key advantages of IBCs

There are several key advantages of using IBCs over chemical drums including the following:

Efficiency of space. IBCs maximize the volume of liquid chemicals that can be stored in a given space compared to drums. For example, a 275-gal IBC has the equivalent volume of five 55-gal drums in the space of four.


Figure 2. IBCs can filled with various products

Ease of movement. Due to the integrated pallet, IBCs can be loaded and unloaded with the use of a forklift, thus saving valuable time (Figure 2).

Easy discharge. The discharge port and valve allows most users to empty simply by the use of gravity, making them easier to use and eliminating waste.

Durability. IBCs offer higher stress crack resistance than standard plastic drums.

Visibility. Users can see content levels (typically this is not possible with a standard tight head drum due to the thickness and color).

Returnable or recyclable.IBCs offer a sustainable solution for storing chemicals because they can be refurbished and when they have come to the end of their service life, they can be recycled into other products.


Environmental efficiency

While each of the above advantages are important, the increased demand for returnable or recyclable packaging from various end-use industries has been a key driver for the IBC market growth in recent years. This is expected to continue as more companies develop sustainability goals.

In fact, the IBC segment of the returnable packaging market is one of the highest in terms of volumes recycled. The growth of this segment can be attributed to the high strength and durability offered by IBCs, properties that allows for multiple life cycles. In addition, the construction allows for the replacement of a damaged sub-component to extend the life of the overall package.

IBCs returned for reconditioning must be subject to stringent inspections that take into consideration important factors such as the type of product that has been stored in the IBC, and any UN or non-UN markings. Any chemical residue must first be neutralized before reconditioning can take place. The first step in the IBC reconditioning process involves a visual check of the outer structure and any necessary repair work. The IBCs are then cleaned and rinsed. After this they are dried and undergo rigorous seal and leak testing, with all valves, gaskets and closures repaired or replaced as necessary.

Similar to reconditioning, there is also the option to rebottle an IBC. In this instance, the cage gets cleaned, however a new bottle gets inserted for use. The previous bottle is generally rinsed then ground up and often that plastic gets repurposed into IBC feet and other industrial products.


Product compatibility

IBC suppliers will assist in the selection of the correct type of IBC for various products. However, ultimately, the suitability of the IBC for the intended filling product is the responsibility of the user.

Before an IBC is used for the transport of dangerous goods, its chemical compatibility with the filling substances must be sufficiently verified, therefore users must consider whether regulations authorize the use of the IBC for the material to be transported. Factors such as the physical characteristics of the materials and specific requirements around filling, transport, storage and emptying must be assessed. Gasket compatibility and the compatibility of service equipment also need to be considered. Supplying precise specifications regarding the product to be packaged will enable the supplier to recommend the correct IBC to meet the requirements.

Depending on the material to be carried, the use of a composite IBC with a permeation-resistant barrier layer may be recommended. Permeation defines the temperature-dependent mass transfer through solid material, especially plastic. A permeation-resistant barrier layer can minimize the permeation of a substance outwards. It may also prevent inward permeation of molecules such as water, oxygen and other gases. Permeation barriers can be achieved through different technologies, including the use of additives or fluorination.


Filling and emptying IBCs

A three-step procedure is recommended for the filling process.

  1. Prior to filling, inspect the IBC to make sure that it is in good condition and ensure the outlet valve is closed.
  2. Fill the product through the top fill port at atmospheric pressure, not exceeding a temperature of 70°C (~158°F), depending on the design type. IBCs are not designed for pressurized filling.
  3. Ensure that there is sufficient venting of the bulk tank or bottle as it cools to prevent vacuum deformation.

Due to the wide variety of valves and caps, it is necessary to request the specific closure instructions from the IBC manufacturer for each component and ensure they are torqued to the proper specification.

Before emptying, open the top lid and vent the bullk tank to prevent vacuum collapse and empty through the lower outlet valve. If using a pipe or pump, make sure that it is independently supported and does not touch the outer frame, as this can cause vibrations that can damage the inner bulk tank.


Storage and transportation

The following guidelines ensure best practice for storage and transportation of IBCs.

  • When using a pallet jack or forklift to move IBCs, always ensure the forks reach all the way underneath the pallet
  • Properly secure all IBCs to prevent movement and damage during transit
  • Check the UN marking on the IBC’s identification plate for its stacking test load to ensure it can be safely stacked
  • Proper nesting is critical — always two on two, not one on three
  • During transport, only stack IBCs two layers high

IBC stacking guidelines

Storage methods, conditions, and ladings can impact the stacking performance of IBCs therefore the following should be used as a guide only (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Stacking IBCs during transportation and storage reduces the space requirements. The rule of thumb shown here determines how high the stack can safely be

  • IBCs containing ladings with a specific gravity of 1.5 or less can be stacked to a maximum of three high
  • IBCs containing ladings with a specific gravity between 1.5 and 1.8 can be stacked to a maximum of two high
  • Stacking IBCs containing ladings with a specific gravity above 1.8 is not advised


The stacking mark explained

As of January 1, 2011, all IBCs authorized to transport hazardous materials feature a sticker highlighting the unit’s maximum top load during transport. This recommended stack value should not be exceeded. The symbol is required to be no less than 100 mm × 100 mm, be durable and clearly visible. The mass marked above the symbol must not exceed the load imposed during the design type test divided by 1.8.


Developments and innovations

Some exciting developments are happening within the IBC market, albeit more gradually than in other areas of packaging. These include innovations such as improved barrier protection within the bulk tank that offers greater product stability, shelf-life and operational performance. Users benefit from a longer product shelf-life, a reduction in harmful air pollutants coming from their product and increased protection of their product against oxygen permeation from outside the container. Also, improvements to sealing equipment, such as branding on seals to remove the risk of product counterfeiting and improved product protection.

Innovation and investment remain as essential as ever. Industries will continue to see increasing pressure to reduce waste and limit resource use, and therefore packaging will continue to become smarter to ensure these requirements are met.

However, although minimizing the environmental impact of packaging is a priority, when implementing sustainable practices, the challenge that the chemical industry will face is that companies must always ensure they are not compromising safety, particularly when dealing with hazardous materials. 

Edited by Gerald Ondrey


Kevin Kling

Kevin Kling is the director of Plastic Product and IBC Development at Greif, Inc. (Rigid Industrial Packaging & Services – North America, 366 Greif Parkway, Delaware, OH 43015; Phone: +1-740-657-6651; Mobile: +1-614-425-8260; Email: kevin.kling@greif.com; Web: www.greif.com). Kling oversees product development and marketing strategy with a passion for developing products for a circular economy that meet future environmental and sustainability needs. He has over 20 years experience in product and project management, sourcing, transportation, logistics system design, change management and network optimizations. Kling holds a B.S. degree from the Ohio State University. Greif entered the IBC market with the acquisition of Fustiplast in 2010 and during the past eight years has become one of the fastest growing and highest investing companies on IBC production. Greif currently has nine IBC facilities across EMEA and 13 globally.

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