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.

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