Pallets may look simple but just as with packaging they need careful thought to arrive at the best overall cost/benefit analysis. The problem has been made more complex by recent additions to the marketplace in terms of different or relatively new materials which affect the cost equation. Moreover, there are health and hygiene issues, environmental issues and the economics of to pool or not to pool to consider.

The big question, however, is that given these recent newcomers on the block are we likely to see a paradigm shift away from the longheld 90% plus dominance of the timber pallet, despite the best attempts of the plastic pallet promoters whose share of the market still languishes only at about 4-5%. It is a hard one to call but as regards the type of pallet material, be it wood, plastic, paper, composites and metal, what are the buying considerations that could give a pointer on potential emerging trends?

Two potential market disrupters could come from the composite materials used by the relatively new kid on the block, RM2 Blockpal, and the Pallite which uses recyclable, corrugated paper and is showing impressive growth. The former’s manufacturer claims to deliver better performance characteristics than wood, plastic or any other pallet type.

Compatible with the food and pharma industries, it provides impressive cost savings owing to its strength, durability and repairability that allows well over 100 pallet trips. Naturally fire intolerant, it can tolerate temperature extremes.

Compared with timber, the cost of the Pallite paper-based product is similar but there should be no misgivings over its strengths based on a honeycomb design. It also has significant advantages over timber, not least its much lighter weight, far better handling safety (splinterfree) and its ISPM15 exemption. All these advantages can lead to remarkable air freight cost savings.

As always, however, it is the nature of the pallets’ environment that will affect the type of material chosen. Many applications, such as food and pharma, shun wood pallets owing to hygiene restrictions and/or contamination risks controlled by guidelines like the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control (HACCP). This leads to greater preference for plastic, boosted by its greater longevity.

The problem of slipping, especially in cold stores, can be reduced by anti-slip stripes and rubber blocks like those employed on the Cabka_IPS brand.

While plastic is much more costly than wood they need not always be dismissed for one-trip use to foreign countries. Very lightweight, nestable, plastic pallets are much cheaper than the traditional heavyweights found in closed loop operations. Plastic is also more likely to be favoured for use in automated warehouses because of their greater dimensional integrity and fewer problems with protruding nails. This does not mean that timber is not used in fully automated storage, but as this writer found on a visit to such a warehouse, 10% of the many thousands of timber pallets used had to be rejected on quality grounds. There should, however, be no problem if using the well-constructed, dimensionally accurate and strong Chep pallets.

Could we see more moves to plastic as the appetite for automated warehouses grows? Or could we see a fall in overall pallet usage as the rise in handling automation and on-line shopping changes the face of the pallet industry. We shall see.