The pallet may not seem a complex item but such are the options open to pallet users that choosing the right pallet for the application, methods of pallet control and the cost/benefit issues of the various materials used in their construction highlights the need to exercise great caution, and as with choosing forklifts it is the pallet lifetime cost that should often take preference over initial cost.

What, for example, are the pros and cons of using a pallet pool rental service and if already using one when would returning pallet ownership to in-house control make sense? How does the oneway, white wood exchange pallet measure up to the more robust blue pallets used by the Chep pallet rental pool? Using a pallet pool may not be the best cost option, depending on the size of the pallet user, as French supermarket giant, Intermarche, found when it left a rented wood pallet pool to set up its own plastic pallet pool.

When switching from a large volume, closed loop pallet operation to a plastic one, the much higher initial costs of plastic v wood might seem daunting but the exercise should take into account the longevity cost issues of plastic compared with wood. Jim Hardisty, MD of Goplasticallets.com, gives an idea of the huge cost differences when taking a pool of 1,000 pallets used within a closed-loop over a lifetime of 10 years. He says a pool of rental wood pallets would cost a total of £90,000, or £9 per pallet per year. If, however, using purchased wood pallets, assuming they are repaired or replaced every 18 months, and have a 20% residual value, the lifetime cost would drop to £53,800, or £5.38 per pallet, per year. In comparison, when using a medium duty, 1200 x 1000 mm plastic pallet initially costing £27 with an average life span of 10 years, the cost would be only £2.97 per pallet, per year.

The cost comparison exercise should not be restricted to wood and plastic. A look at the composite materials used by the relatively newcomer, RM2 Blockpal, could throw up even more impressive cost savings. Its strength, durability and repairability allow well over 100 pallet trips. With completely sealed channels, the Blockpal blocks insect and bacterial contamination, making it well suited for the food and pharma industries. It has an increased coefficient friction over traditional pallets, a greater strength to weight ratio than structural steel and, claims RM2, delivers better performance characteristics than wood, plastic or any other pallet type. It is naturally fire retardant, it can tolerate extreme temperature environments and so it could appeal to cold store operators.

Another pallet material that may be worth considering, especially for airfreight and export, and its environmental advantages, is the very light weight corrugated, recycled paper pallet and accompanying stackable and collapsible boxes from the Alternative Pallet Company. Its Pallite pallet costs about the same as timber but typically weight 20 kg less and is splinter-free. That would save a lot of cash in air freight charges but there are also environmental advantages. For example, if using such lightweight pallets and one sends only four pallets a week on a 5,000 mile flight that would equate with saving the CO2 equivalent of running two medium-sized cars for a full year, or be equal to planting 16 new trees. Other export advantages include ISPM15 exempt.

Of course there are other methods to cut land, sea and air freight charges and this will depend partly on the nature of the cargoes. Although requiring some investment in handling machines, slip sheets, for example, cost and weigh almost nothing and would quickly repay the equipment investment costs, yet they do not seem to be used as much as they could be. If transporting sacked materials it may be possible to arrange the sack stacking profile to create two fork voids at the load base and then stabilize the load with a stretchwrap system like those from Moellers. A palletless system is the cheapest pallet of all.