Dry Bulk - what it is and how it affects our day to day lives

21 June 2022

Most people – when they consider activity in seaports – immediately think about containers, cruises and ferries. But did you know that these account for just over one-third of cargo through UK ports?


Crude oil and oil products (petrol, diesel, jet oil etc.) account for about another third. So what else is coming through ports?


Most of the remainder is what’s known as “dry bulks” – these are products that travel in cargo hold hatches rather than on decks or inside tankers. Upwards of 100 million tonnes of the stuff passes through Britain’s ports each year.


Agribulks – including grains and cereals for human consumption, as well as animal feed – travel almost exclusively as dry bulk product, connecting UK food manufacturing with farms all over the world. If there’s a poor harvest, this is critical to maintaining a reliable food supply to the country; if there’s bumper harvest, this creates an opportunity to sell on international markets what we don’t need at home. In a typical year, at least 10 million tonnes passes through our ports.


Scrap metal – when your old car or washing machine reaches the end of its life, there’s a good chance that it will be crushed and shredded (the latter often at the port itself) and loaded aboard a bulk vessel with a gigantic claw, to be shipped to Turkey or Egypt, to be made into your new washing machine or air-conditioning unit! About half of all scrap metal generated in the UK – or 5 million tonnes per year – is shipped abroad in bulk form, with even more travelling in containers.


Aggregates – all that sand, gravel and pebbles that is dredged from the sea or exported from other countries doesn’t magically appear at building sites to support construction. No, it passes through ports on the way, an estimated 15-20 million tonnes per year.


Biomass – compressed wood pellets that are burned in place of coal for power generation are generally imported from foreign sources, about 9-10 million tonnes of it per year since coal fell out of favour.


Coal – at its height, up to 50 million tonnes of coal would pass through UK ports per year, but not much of this is now needed for power generation. However, coking coal for steel manufacturing is still imported in bulk through a small number of ports that feed into steel production. While we’re on the topic of steel, iron ore is imported – similarly through a select few ports feeding into steel – at about 10 million tonnes per year.