Deciding which type of pallet to choose is often not an easy exercise, partly because the cost equation is not the only determinant. There are health and hygiene issues, legislative, environmental and their suitability for automation. One may also need to consider whether or not to use a pallet pool, an option that would relieve the user of repair, track and trace and pallet losses. But renting from within pools or not may not always be the better option, as French super market giant, Intermarche, found when it left the rented wood pallet behind by setting up its own plastic pallet pool based on the Cramer pallet. But when making such a change it is important to test the pallets over a lengthy period from several pallet makers, taking into account three critical criteria: loss rate, return rate and breakage rate. The last of these was decisive for the supermarket chain and the company’s investment, while initially more costly than wood pallets would have been, is on course to achieving its ROI within 2.5years. Economic reasons apart, Intermarche was also very satisfied with the big drop in repetitive strain injuries and occupational accidents, because not only was the new plastic pallet much lighter than wood but also free of the usual risks from splinters and nails.

The nature of the pallet’s environment will, of course, affect the type of pallet material chosen. Many applications, such as food and pharma, will not allow the use of wood pallets owing to hygiene restrictions and/or contamination risks, controlled by guidelines like Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and the US Federal Food and Drug Administration regulations. The degree of handling automation used is also important because pallet dimensional integrity and strength are critical, which influences automated warehouse operators to choose plastic over wood.

Certain types of goods handled, like sacked loose materials, could even dispense with pallets entirely because they lend themselves to shrinkwrap systems like those from Moellers, which allows two voids at the load base to accept a lift truck’s forks. Another palletless system well-suited to the export trade is the slip sheet, much lighter than pallets and space saving.

Wood pallets remain the dominant solution to unit load handling and they have their advantages through sustainability and low initial cost, and with appropriate treatments can be used where food is present and for export. Yet other materials, apart from plastic, could make significant inroads into wood’s dominant position. These include paper, composite materials and metal.

Pallite’s paper pallet is made mainly from recycled paper, and even after use is recyclable, thus enhancing its sustainability message. Costwise, it compares favourably with wood but has other advantages like ISPM15 exempt, bespoke sizes, light weight and none of the hazards associated with splinters and nails.

Metal pallets now show more promise, like those from PZ Pallets, because developments have made them a cost-effective alternative to timber. If made from aluminium, they are half the weight of wood and carry none of the hygiene/health problems associated with wood.

The biggest waves in the struggle for pallet market share, however, could come from composite materials like RM2’s Blockpal. Its new generation 3 Blockpal has been made with RM2 ELIoT integrated into the pallet’s design so that it can utilise the internet of things to identify its location accurately, increasing pallet supply chain security. The strength, durability, repairability of the GEN3 Blockpal translate into well over 100 pallet trips. Its channels are completely sealed, eliminating the risk of insect or bacterial contamination, making it ideal for the pharma and food industries. It has an increased coefficient friction over traditional pallets, a greater strength to weight ratio than structural steel and, claims the company, delivers superior performance characteristics that you cannot get with wood, plastic or any other pallet type. It is naturally fire retardant and has a non-slip top and underside for secure fork truck gripping. It can tolerate extreme temperature environments with no material effect on performance.