Choosing the right kind of pallet, be it wood or plastic, is like buying forklifts. Without due diligence the cost penalty can be high. Wood will probably remain the dominant material of choice for many years, currently commanding at least 90% of the UK pallet market, but there is a growing trend towards plastic, particularly where hygiene and safety are big issues and the pallets are in a controlled loop.

Once the pallet material has been chosen, the problems do not end there. Again, to use the forklift analogy, it would be a mistake to buy the cheapest without considering the life cycle costs and fit-for-purpose issues. As Craemer UK, a leading plastic pallet producer explains, buyers should beware of purchasing the cheapest pallet on line or from a catalogue because if it fails to be fit for purpose there could be serious health and safety issues.

Taking advice from the experts makes sense. Heavy duty plastic pallets still cost much more than wood so it is important not to over-specify plastic pallets. Buyers should consider load weights if they are variable and select pro-rata plastic pallets to suit with reduced prices for the lighter weight applications.

Longevity and closed loop operations will also enhance the case for plastic. Average life span for wood pallets without repair can be only a few months whereas a top-of-the range plastic pallet can be over 10 years. Their hygiene and safety advantages over wood also favour them and according to suppliers like Goplasticpallets and Equipment Tracking there is a trend towards plastic in the retailing, food and pharmaceutical industries. Equipment Tracking, in particular, has noticed that this year, compared with last, shows a significant increased use of plastic pallets on wheels being used by retailers. This allows retailers to decant from arriving lorries and move straight to the shop floor, thus cutting down on handling and packaging waste.

Even so, warns Craemer, “There are many low cost plastic pallets and unfortunately it is vitally important that industry is educated that not all products are alike and that it is imperative that the product is fit for purpose as there is no room for error.”

One problem with stored plastic pallets, however, is the fire issue, which could generate serious toxic emissions, but Goplasticpallets report that there will be new developments on fire retardant pallets later this year.

Wood pallets can be made to many different sizes without the need for expensive retooling, as would be the case for plastic, but certain wood types can also match some of plastic’s advantages. Inka Presswood Pallets, for example, are much lighter than raw and even heat-treated timber by as much as 50%. Timber pallets may contain 18-25% moisture while Presswood pallets are just 8-10%. They can operate in all environments and owing to their method of manufacture they meet the requirements of ISPM15, meaning that they can be exported anywhere in the world without special treatments or certification. Not least of their matching benefits with plastic is that they are also nestable. This means a stack of 50 nestable Presswood pallets would occupy only 1.8 mt3 of space compared with over 7 mt3 for Euro-sized, raw timber pallets.

The investment needed in plastic and timber pallets can be very high so it is important to treat them with the same respect as stock. Even pallet pools are not immune to heavy losses. A few years ago Brambles, the owner of the Chep brand, lost 14 million pallets, which probably exceeded £150 million. Today there are software providers like Equipment Tracking that can integrate with existing business enterprise solutions, including SAP, and use barcodes or RFID technology to manage pallets and other equipment automatically. By maintaining accurate stock balances throughout the supply chain the software ensures that equipment usage is maximised so that the costs are kept to a minimum.

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