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Alternatives to Wood Pallets: Part Three

Among pallet materials, wood dwarfs the combined usage of the alternatives; nonetheless, their situation-specific capabilities are worth knowing.

Sterling Anthony

Let’s knock on wood, and cite shortcomings of wood pallets that afford other material formats niche opportunities.

Plastic. An ever-ready criticism of plastic pallets is that they are sourced from non-renewable petroleum. The counter-defense is that they are recyclable. The recycling is straightforward, given that only one material, HDPE, is involved. Furthermore, HDPE can be repeatedly recycled without degradation of its properties.

Once the sustainability issue is addressed, promoters of plastic pallets are quick to recite a list of advantages over wood. One is that it weighs less, which benefits transportation costs in addition to facilitating manual handling. Despite being lighter weight, plastic pallets are durable and have considerable load-bearing capacity. They are less likely to cause damage to loads (or their handlers) because they have neither splinters nor fasteners (nails, screws, staplers). They can be delivered having been cleaned by steam or waterjet, making them attractive to such industries as food & beverage, pharmaceutical & medicine, or cosmetics, etc.

On the debit side, the injection molded unibody construction of plastic pallets does not accommodate simple, part-replacement repairs. Such construction, however, with its tighter dimensional tolerances, benefits automated palletizing and automated warehousing operations.

And then there’s price; plastic pallets are substantively more expensive. Their initial outlay only makes financial sense if plastic pallets are used for multiple trips. That level of management and retention means that plastic pallets are best suited either for a user’s closed-loop system or a rental pool. As for the latter, the largest player in the U.S. is iGPS, with its ability to incorporate RFID tags onto the pallets for tracking and tracing.

The biggest boon to plastic pallet rentals has been their acceptance by major retailers, including big-box stores. Retailers are enamored of not having to contend with piles of empty pallets, since they are hauled away by the pool owners. Another appeal is aesthetics; plastic pallets present better, especially in sell-from-pallet displays. As much as smaller brands may want to ride the plastic pallets train, they might not qualify for a ticket. That’s because there is a threshold annual quantity before renting becomes financially feasible, said to be around 10,000 pallets.

Paper. The constructions vary, including corrugated, solid fiberboard, honeycomb, and molded pulp. Some are of virgin fibers, others incorporate recycled and waste materials. Some are stackable, others nestable. Being paper, however, all are hygroscopic, subject to absorbing moisture from the atmosphere. Even more of a concern, if paper pallets get outright wet, say from water, their performance becomes unreliable. Although indoor storage might seem a simple solution, it comes at the opportunity cost of not being able to use the space for other purposes.

Paper pallets can be a viable choice for light- to moderate-sized loads. Even so, their reuse is risky. Their one-trip use is best tolerated by retailers that operate an on-site compactor because paper pallets can be thrown in with corrugated boxes for baling.

One-trip use also is suitable for international shipments (contingent on meeting load-bearing requirements). Paper pallets are cheaper than the cheapest one-trip wood pallets. An additional benefit is that, unlike wood, they don’t have to be heat-treated or fumigated to meet international mandates against wood-boring insects.

Paper pallets are at their cost-effective best when they require no enhancement. When, for example, they are wax impregnated to improve water resistance, their price advantage over wood (and plastic) narrows, without a proportional narrowing of comparative performances. From another perspective, non-paper additives complicate recycling.

Some paper pallets are promoted with such terms as “specialty” and “industrial-strength.” They’re meant to foster favorable comparisons not only to other paper pallets but also to pallets of wood and plastic. Caveat to prospective buyers: ask suppliers for test results that backup performance ratings. Beyond that, prospective buyers should conduct trials under conditions of transportation, handling, and storage.

Hybrids. The idea behind hybrids is to combine wood, plastic, and paper for a synergistic effect. The possible combinations are limited only by the imagination, as continually proven in the marketplace. Depending on the specific composition of the pallets, their suppliers attempt to woo buyers with target features. A few examples should suffice for many.

A wood pallet has its end deck boards capped with plastic bumpers that protect against damage from forklift impacts. The supplier claims that the reinforcement gives the pallet a 10-year service life.

A plywood pallet has a thick elastomer coating, a combination that’s lightweight and durable. As with the preceding example, this one also boasts a 10-year service life, along with RFID compatibility.

A pallet is made by compression molding, using heat and pressure to bond wood chips and an adhesive. The pallet is meant for single-trip.

As a last example, a pallet has a wood frame onto which corrugated is glued. This pallet, too, is meant for single-trip.

Summarizing this three-part series: supply chains can’t operate without pallets. Therefore, pallet management should be assigned its deserved priority.

Sterling Anthony, CPP, is a consultant specializing in marketing, packaging, logistics, and ergonomics. 100 Renaissance Center-Box 176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313/531-1875;

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