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Plastic pallets 101

“Plastics!” If you’re old enough to remember “The Graduate,” plastics was the one-word piece of career advice offered to Dustin Hoffman after college graduation.

Things may not be quite that dramatic in the pallet industry – wood is still by far the material of choice for pallets by most shippers. The last time Modern surveyed its readers, fewer than 9% were using plastic pallets. But the interest in plastic pallets is clearly growing.

In part, that interest is the result of regulatory concerns in the food and beverage industry as well as a highly-publicized product recall by Johnson & Johnson that was blamed on a chemical treatment used in wooden pallets produced overseas. “Companies in the food industry, especially the agricultural industry, are converting to plastic because of FDA regulations.” “Plastic is non-porous, so nothing will seep in to contaminate the pallets, and they’re washable.” When hygiene counts, plastic has real advantages over wood.

And in part, renewed interest is being driven by the plastic pallet pooling system. The pool allows end users who can control their assets to rent plastic pallets on a per trip basis that’s comparable to wooden pallets. “We are seeing some organic growth, but the companies that are converting from wood to pallet are participating in a pool.”

Ergonomics: As a general rule a plastic pallet weighs less than a comparable wooden pallet designed to handle the same load. That can result in fewer lifting-related back and shoulder injuries.

Safety: Plastic pallets are not only washable, there are no nails, splinters or wooden shavings that can damage product or injure an employee.

Long life: While some wooden pallets have delivered years of service, they will have been repaired multiple times over that period. The expense of repairs has to be factored into the overall cost of using wood pallets.

Sustainable: Like a wood pallet, plastic pallets can be recycled at the end of their useful life. Are they green? Wood pallet manufacturers will argue that plastic pallets are a byproduct of petroleum and treated with flame-retardant chemicals, making their green bonafides suspect. Plastic pallet manufacturers will argue that wood pallets are the result of cutting down valuable hardwood forests, are also sometimes treated with noxious chemicals and can transport pests and bacteria. We’ll let end users sort through those arguments with their in-house sustainability experts. Depending on your corporate priorities, both wood and plastic have pluses and minuses when it comes to sustainability.

Still, there’s a reason that plastic remains a niche option for pallet users: A plastic pallet is significantly more expensive than a new or used wood pallet. “If you can’t control your assets return that plastic pallet into the supply chain, you can’t justify the difference in price between a wooden pallet and a plastic pallet.” And, if your pallets don’t turn very often, you may not see a return on investment.” Likewise, if you need a rackable pallet, plastic pallets can be reinforced with steel, but they’re costly if they’re not part of a pallet pool.

Where, then, do plastic pallets fit? Here are some factors to consider:

Closed loop supply chain: Whether you own your plastic pallets or participate in a plastic pallet pool, you have to control the asset to make it work. It’s one thing to lose a $10 wooden pallet; it’s another thing entirely to lose a $35 – or more – plastic pallet. Beverage manufacturers, for instance, will use plastic pallets for direct to store delivery, where they can pick up an empty pallet when they drop off a pallet of new stock.

Inside the four walls: While most pallets are used to ship product across the supply chain, pallets are also used for strictly internal processes. Examples include slave pallets that are used for storage or captive pallets used for storing work-in-process between manufacturing processes. In those situations, a plastic pallet can deliver a longer life than wood. Likewise, a number of retailers prefer plastic pallets to wood for their in-store floor displays.

Automated systems: Since plastic pallets are highly-engineered and manufactured in a mold, they are more consistent than even new wood pallets. That makes them ideal for automated storage and conveyor systems. Since there are no deck boards to break or stringers to collapse, they are less likely to fail during use and stop the line. 

Whether those benefits will justify the added expense of a plastic pallet will be determined by individual users’ processes. “Each customer’s economics are different.” But what it usually comes down to is how many times you can turn the pallet during the year. If you’re turning your pallet one or two times a year, plastic will have a hard time competing. If you’re turning that pallet 4, 5 or 6 times a year and you can control you’re supply chain, it gets more interesting.”

Steady growth trend for plastic pallets

When it comes to specialty pallets for niche applications, there are more money-saving pallet alternatives than ever.

By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor, Modern Materials Handling 
September 01, 2010

When it comes to versatility and cost, wood, plastic and steel pallets are still the kings of the hill when it comes to the materials used for pallet construction. Together, they account for more than 90% of the pallets on the market.

Still, increasing freight costs, new export regulations, and growing concerns over product contamination have pallet users looking for alternatives to traditional pallets.

“All of our major customers, especially in the food packaging and pharmaceuticals industries, are asking how can we replace wood,” says Ron Lanier Jr., sales and marketing manager for Sonoco Transport Packaging. “They’re concerned about contamination, the cleanliness of the facility, and the ergonomics of handling 60-pound pallets.”

The good news is that there are more proven alternative pallets on the market today than at any time in the past. Let’s be clear: None of these products is as versatile or as economical as a wood pallet in all applications. They are niche products. But, in the right application, they are one more tool in the materials handling toolkit. Here are four examples of alternative pallets currently available:

Coated foam pallets: For manufacturers shipping high-value products, like consumer electronics, by air freight or even by sea, the freight cost of shipping a heavy wooden pallet with a load may exceed the cost of the pallet. Enter Airdex, which manufactures a lightweight, high-performance pallet from coated foam material that is popular with some name-brand manufacturers of computers.

The pallets cost around $25 in volume, depending on the size of the pallet, or about three times the cost of a wooden pallet. However, it weighs just 7 pounds and can support a racked load of 2,300 pounds, a dynamic load of 3,600 pounds, and a stacked weight of 12,000 pounds. “We’re taking between 25- and 30-pounds of weight out of a typical palletized load,” says CEO Vance Seagle, who patented the technology used to make the Airdex pallet in North America.

The weight savings alone is enough to justify the cost of the pallet on one use, and some customers have a pallet recovery program in place to get multiple uses from their pallets, Seagle says. The pallets can be produced anywhere there’s a nearby foam plant. “Our machine fits in 40-foot container,” Seagle says. “If you want a pallet in Botswana near a foam plant, I can set up a machine that will turn out 17,000 pallets a month.” Airdex is working with AT&T to introduce a pallet equipped with a battery-powered GPS transponder that will communicate its location in real time as the pallet moves through the supply chain. “We will be able to provide the world’s first real-time tracking of a pallet, regardless of where it’s located and without passing through an RFID portal,” Seagle says.

Corrugated, plastic and composite pallets: For the past five years, Sonoco Transport Packaging, a global packaging company with more than 300 facilities in 33 companies, has been researching and developing a line of five alternative pallet solutions that includes corrugated, plastic and composite materials. Each was developed for a specific situation, ranging from a corrugated sheet with two split corrugated cores (tubes) to accommodate lift truck forks designed to handle bulk bags to a high-performance corrugated pallet that can support 2,800 pounds in an open rack to plastic pallets to composite engineered-wood components (blocks and lead deck boards) that add strength and durability to a traditional wood pallet. The real selling point to all of these products, says Lanier, is that Sonoco can bring a customer’s products into its packaging test facility and design the right pallet and industrial packaging for that customer’s needs. “We can evaluate the different pallets and packaging available and design a total system for their product,” says Lanier.

Presswood pallets: One of the first users of the Inca presswood pallet from Litco International in North America was the postal service. The pallet, manufactured from wood fibers and synthetic resins and molded into shape under high heat and pressure, has no moisture content that can be absorbed by paper products. Today, the pallet is popular for export because it’s guaranteed to be free of bugs, bark and mold without any further treatment.

“Many people think that heat treating a pallet is enough to make it mold resistant for export,” says Gary Sharon, vice president. “While that may be enough to kill insects, it’s not enough to kill mold for export.” Because the pallets are nestable, they also save space over conventional wood pallets. More than 1,000 Inca pallets will fit on a truck, compared to 500 wooden pallets, and 50 pallets stack 7 feet high, compared to about 17 to 20 wooden pallets. For companies with sustainability programs in place, Inca pallets have been cradle-to-cradle certified as sustainable.

Plastic pallets gain ground in an eco-conscious world.

Publication: Plastics Technology
Low-cost wood is still king, but plastics’ reusability is a growing attraction among manufacturers looking for sustainable material-handling options. The one major hurdle is today’s high resin prices.

The iconic wood pallet remains an omni-present force in transportation, distribution, and storage of manufactured products throughout the world. Its pre-eminence has been dictated largely by cost, but plastic pallets continue to make inroads because of their durability, reusability, and light weight. Plastic pallets made by injection molding, structural foam, thermoforming, rotational molding, and compression molding are gaining acceptance in a range of markets including foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals, groceries, automotive, and the U.S. Postal Service.

The difficulty and cost of wood pallet disposal has always been a concern, but today’s focus on the environment is fueling a renewed interest in the plastics alternative. Reusability is a major attraction. Several plastic pallet makers have capitalized by coming out with low-cost versions that compete favorably with wood. One method of holding down costs is to use recycled resin and scrap regrind. Also favoring plastics are international regulations that require treatment of wood to reduce pest migration in export pallets. Meanwhile, the industry’s first plastic pallet “pool” system has been launched. These RFID-enabled pallets play to plastics’ reusability, making them more economically feasible on a cost-per-trip basis.

“The sustainability issue is front and center and has given plastics an advantage,” asserts Bill Mashy, general manager of the materials handling group for injection molder Rehrig Pacific Co., Los Angeles. “But at the end of the day, it ultimately has to he the economics; I haven’t seen where industry will sacrifice economics for sustainability.”

Many observers envision plastic pallets playing an even larger role as companies adopt greater levels of automation in their warehouses. Greater automation requires repeatability and reliability, and plastics’ tailored designs and consistent dimensions and weights offer a distinct advantage over wood pallets, which are vulnerable to splintering off shards and pulling apart as nails loosen.

Material Handling Headlines

Stricter Wood Pallet Regulations Expected

Stepped-up U.S. regulations on pallets and other wood packaging are likely on the way, though it’s unclear when, industry officials say.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture set the wheels in motion in August, asking for feedback on ways to reduce the risks of spreading insect pests that hitch rides on wood packaging. The public comment period ended Oct. 26, and potential rule changes remain under consideration, according to the USDA.

“We are reviewing comments and considering the next steps,” Alyn Kiel, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said.

Bruce Scholnick, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Wooden Pallet & Container Association, says it’s only a matter of time before new rules are adopted.  “I’m convinced it will happen,” Scholnick said.  He said the USDA is moving “too slowly.  These critters are going to keep moving, and we can’t stop them,” Scholnick said.

There are about 1.2 billion wood pallets in use in the U.S., according to the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association.  Businesses that make, sell and repair the pallets generate about $5 billion revenue a year, Scholnick estimates.

The USDA aims to halt the spread of pests, primarily the emerald ash borer and the Asian long-horned beetle, that hide in wood packaging shipped from state to state. These insects pose “a serious threat to U.S. agriculture and forests,” according to a USDA statement prior to a series of public hearings that began last fall on the issue.

Options under consideration include requiring wooden pallets used in the U.S. be heat-treated or fumigated with methyl bromide.  Another option would require pallet pooling. Under a pooling system, packaging companies lease pallets to interstate shippers while retaining ownership of the individual pallets and employing “rigorous inventory tracking and management,” according to the Aug. 27 USDA statement.

Read the full story at:

Wood Pallet Safety

By Arnold Anderson, eHow Contributor
According to the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, more than 1.2 billion wooden pallets are currently in use in the United States. Worker safety, public safety and workplace safety all may rely on the proper use and storage of wooden pallets at one point or another. Though you may easily take wooden pallets for granted, failing to follow the proper safety procedures for handling pallets can cause worker injuries and even danger to the public.

1. Cleaning
          In 2009, the FDA established a potential contamination link between pallets and the food products they carry. Over time, a wooden pallet can pick up contaminants from the plastic wrap used to secure products, or bacteria from the products themselves that can grow and get into new products packed with those same pallets. Clean pallets before each use, even if the pallets look almost brand new. Follow the manufacturer’s suggestions for scrubbing pallets clean and help prevent bacteria from getting into the food transported by your company.

2. Stacking
          Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on how high your company can safely stack pallets. Prior to adding a pallet to a stack, check the pallet over to make sure it remains in good condition. If it requires repair, take care of those repairs before forcing the pallet to take on the weight of a pallet stack. If a pallet has sustained damage beyond repair, set it aside for proper disposal and do not allow it to become a workplace hazard. Improper pallet maintenance and stacking can cause worker injury.

3. Fire
          Wooden pallets carry the potential for a fire hazard. Keep wooden pallets away from areas of high heat, and far away from manufacturing areas that produce sparks and other fire starters. Do not stack pallets near hot water pipes or any other hot piping. Prohibit smoking around pallet stacks in the workplace. Even a wet pallet can burn.

Read more: Wood Pallet Safety |