Pallets have been around since WW2 in Britain but times are changing not only in the balance between the competing materials of wood, plastic, composites and metal but also in logistics practices, which in the long term threaten to reduce their use substantially in favour of delivery totes, trays to homes or click and collect sites. There have also been palletless alternatives like slip sheets and Moellers’ shrink wrap solution, well suited to sacked materials, which leaves two base voids for a forklift’s forks.

Charles-New-GreyOne aspect, however, never seems to change, and that is the need to choose a supplier partner carefully, especially so when looking at pallet pool solutions from companies like Chep and Pooling Partners, and that means analysing the whole costs of the supply chain. While using a completely outsourced solution may first appear more costly, once the internal costs of having to administer, source, repair and sort pallets is factored in it’s at least cost neutral, if not cost saving. This rental approach also means that the costs can be paid from revenues and so can be offset against taxes.

One of the first decisions is to choose the pallet’s material, and it’s usually a two-horse race between wood and plastic. Timber still dominates the market, accounting for, perhaps, 90% of the UK market, but Jim Hardisty, MD of Goplasticpallets, believes the public’s perception and appreciation of plastics “remains extremely low”. For that reason, his company launched ‘Pallet Evolution’ to help educate pallet users about the many advantages of using plastic pallets and dispel some of the myths that threaten to give plastic pallets a bad name.

One overriding concern that would favour plastic pallets is the hygiene/safety issue and so they are often favoured by the food and pharma industries. If not kilndried, wood pallets would need to be treated by a fungicide to prevent mould and this should be carefully analysed for any harmful properties the chemical treatment may contain. Timber is also prone to splinters and protruding nails and broken members, so handling staff should wear adequate protective gloves and be more wary about them than when handling lighter plastic pallets.

Another area where plastic should be favoured over wood is in automated handling environments.

This old hand recalls visiting one semi-automated, high bay warehouse operated by a household name retailer and noticing a large pile of timber pallets piled outside the warehouse. The company explained that among the tens of thousands of wood pallets inside their warehouse 10%% had to be rejected over quality and other reasons. It is not uncommon for the pallet rejection rate to be up to 30%. Jim Hardisty recalls one UK supermarket operator trialled some of his plastic pallets in an automated storage site after a wooden pallet racked 10 racks high broke, causing a pyramid effect that left a £2.5 million bill to resolve.

There are many other reasons why timber should not be considered for automated handling, like dimensional instability, splinters, exposed nails and lack of guaranteed loading capacities.

The case against plastic is most often one of initial cost compared with timber, and while there is a significant cost difference it is a crass comparison because, as when buying forklifts, it should not be the initial cost that determines the choice but rather the life cycle cost.

The longevity of plastic pallets will depend on many variables but a 10- year life span is not uncommon, and they can be repaired. Cleaning is also easier. Such a life span could be 10 times longer than a wood pallet so the long-term payback would clearly favour plastic, which is also exempted from ISPM15 regulations governing import/export pallets. Meanwhile, plastic pallet designs have changed so much that lightweight designs are now cheap enough to use as a one-trip export pallet.

One should not, of course, forget the other pallet materials that could be a better choice than wood or plastic. These include last year’s arrival of RM2’s composite Blockpal, a multi-trip, heavy duty pallet with a high strength to weight ration. Easy to clean, it is moisture resistant, ISPM15 exempt and meets UL 2335 standard for fire retardancy.