The working environment is often the key clincher as to which pallet material to use but in many handling operations more than one type of pallet material can be used so are you using the best? As with buying forklifts, it is the life-cycle costs that should concentrate minds, not the initial purchase costs, but should not environmental issues be included in them?

The battle for market share between wood versus plastic paper and composites has raged for many years but hitherto has had little effect on the market shares held by each material, with wood still dominant at 90% and plastic 4.5-5%, followed by fast-growing paper (Pallite) and composites. But if the environmental costs of each material vying for attention were fully understood and factored in would that finally shift the current, long-held market shares of each? It’s difficult to say but one thing seems reasonably certain as the impact of climate change on logistics costs, in particular, shines the spotlight on environmental costs, with likely legislation to follow that will force a rethink of how your supply chain operations impact us all and what changes you may be encouraged to make.

There are some ways to improve one’s environmental credentials without having to use pallets at all, but curiously, perhaps, have not had much impact so far. The oldest of these is the slip sheet, made of thin, strong plastic, that weighs and costs far less than wood/plastic and takes up far less space, with obvious benefits for freight costs and the environment. It does, however, require initial investment in forklift attachments and inverters at each end of the supply chain. Sacked loads are especially suited for palletless loads when stretchwrapped to leave fork voids at the load base, as in the Mollers’ system.

In closed loop scenarios the metal roll containers, albeit a form of pallet, have replaced the wood/plastic pallets significantly in the retail sector, and in so doing greatly enhanced the materials handling function.

These roll containers can also serve as return loads for compacted cardboard box waste, a task now made much simpler thanks to the recently-invented Spacemaker card crusher which enters a roll container full of cardboard waste boxes and compresses with a 5 to 1 ratio without damage to the roll containers. Asda is now rolling these out big time.

Changes in the way we all shop will also affect demand for pallets. Online shopping, for example, is boosting demand for automated warehouses which are geared solely to order picking by robots interfacing with plastic containers. Previously, under conventional supply chain models, palletised loads wold go from manufacturers to RDCs and from there to large/ medium-sized shops for storage in their back warehouses before being put out on shelf display.

Much has been said that automated warehouses favour plastic pallets over wood, partly because of the former’s greater dimensional accuracy and integrity. While this is a valid point it does not mean that wood is always at a disadvantage here provided the junk quality wood pallets are eschewed in favour of the solid, dimensionally accurate timber pallets from the likes of Chep and LPR. Plastic pallets, it should be said, are up to five times more costly than wood, which initially can be a big cost burden when storing many thousands of them, but they can last 10 times longer than wood and so careful analysis is needed when arriving at an accurate lifecycle cost comparison. To some extent, too, despite plastic per se being pilloried over environmental issues it is no longer quite so villainous. As Jim Hardisty, MD of Goplastics.com, points out 90% of the plastic pallets his company makes are made from recycled plastic.

BILL REDMOND

Features Editor