Bill Brassington of ETS Consulting has drawn attention to the recent publication by the Container Owners Association of the second edition of the Recommended Code of Practice for Flexitanks. He writes:

'For many years the carriage of bulk liquid containers has been undertaken in various forms. All types of liquid cargo, including dangerous goods, have been carried in the traditional tank container, but in the last ten years the need to minimise the transport cost and the unavailability of tank containers has drawn shippers increasingly to consider an alternative. Flexible bladders up to 24,000 litres in capacity, known as flexitanks, have been fabricated to carry non dangerous liquid cargoes within the 20ft general purpose container. When the flexitank originally entered the shipping market in the 1980s it was used for the transport of food stuffs, such as wine, or simple non hazardous cargoes such as latex. At the turn of the century shipments were limited to less than 10,000 per year, but by 2008 the global flexitank market was estimated to have exceeded 200,000 shipments. The flexitank industry is now a considerable contributor to the bulk logistics sector and the general freight market.

The freight container industry has a very mixed view of flexitanks, some perceive that the carriage of flexitanks in dry freight containers is a disaster waiting to happen; while others consider that they are a cost effective and efficient means of transporting bulk liquids. While the number of incidents of partial or total loss of the cargo is less than 1%, the perception of risk is often significant.

There are two factors that adversely affect the shipping lines' perception, firstly the damage to the container while carrying a loaded flexitank, often resulting in the serious outward and permanent deformation of the side walls of the container, secondly the consequences of the flexitank failure. Failure often results in the total contents of the flexitank being released and leaking out of the container. Depending on the nature of the cargo, there may be major disruption to service and/or high costs associated with the cleaning up of the leaked material. Viscous substances such as latex can block ships' bilge pumps and shore based drainage systems, necessitating major and expensive cleaning operations. The potential risk of these most damaging leaks has coloured the freight container industry's perception of the flexitank.

This risk perceived by the shipping lines and terminal operators has resulted in a number of major flexitank manufacturers collaborating with the Container Owners Association to develop standards and a code of practice for the manufacture, testing and operation of flexitanks. The revised second edition of the Recommended Code of Practice for Flexitanks was published on 1 Jan 2010. This code covers the selection of containers that are suitable for carrying loaded flexitanks (including condition criteria), specification for tests of the flexitank / container combination (including rail impact tests) - which demonstrate the manufacturers' commitment to improving the performance of their products and the subsequent reduction of failure. The code also requires unique and permanent marks on the flexitank that can be traced back to the manufacturer and that the flexitank operator is responsible for marking the container with flexitank information. It further covers incident management, insurance and training.

There is no date of implementation and it may be useful if the shipping lines who carry flexitanks in freight containers declare a date after which all such shipments should comply with the Code. Setting a date is important in order to drive improvements in manufacturing standards and use by flexitank operators of compliant equipment. This new code is welcome and can be found on the Container Owners Association website.

Staff Author

TT Club