The debate surrounding issues of timber versus plastic pallets has been aired over decades and shows no sign of easing, says LPR UK’s MD, Jane Gorick. But a new environmental development promises to raise temperatures as the timber and plastic camps lock horns. That issue is biomass demand which could see timber pallet prices rise uncomfortably. But another major factor that will influence the pallet industry this year is carbon reduction targets.

Timber remains the dominant material for UK pallets, accounting for around 90% of the 70 million pallets in circulation, and a recently-commissioned study reveals that more timber pallets and packaging than ever are being re-used, repaired or recycled but the amount of re-used /recycled timber used in manufacturing increased from only 9% to 12.7% as a proportion of the total timber pallet population.

Hitherto, timber has always enjoyed a steep price advantage over plastic pallets but that differential looks set to change unless, perhaps, lobbies can persuade the Government to abandon subsidies that encourage the burning of wood in biomass plants. These subsidies have helped raise British-grown timber prices from £30 to £50 per tonne over 5 years and the Department of Energy and Climate Change has forecast that biomass demand could put up the price of wood to £114 a tonne in the near to medium term.

According to Jim Hardisty, MD of Goplasticpallets, the rising price of timber has already had a knock-on effect on the cost of wooden pallets with customers refusing to buy new ones and would also affect availability if biomass escalates at the rate predicted. This will only reduce the pool of good quality wooden pallets in circulation. Certainly the market for new pallets has decreased in favour of pooling and recovery activity.

Concerns over carbon footprints could also tip the scales in plastic’s favour. While it is true that timber is a renewable resource that absorbs carbon and that plastic comes from finite fossil fuel, environmentally concerned corporations look over the long term to reduce their carbon footprint. Plastic pallets and containers can last up to 10 times longer than timber and while timber pallets can be repaired more easily than plastic each time that is done it involves expensive energy. Moreover, plastic pallets can be made to nest and being only a small fraction of a timber pallet’s weight they can offer clients the excellent space-saving, carbon-cutting solution by significantly reducing costs on return journey transportation. At the end of their life both timber and plastic can be recycled.

Certain industries, like food, eschew timber pallets in manufacturing environments for hygiene reasons but Jane Gorick believes that there are misconceptions about hygiene and quality that are incorrectly being purported as fact and that these need to be challenged. “Regardless of material, a pallet will only ever be as clean as its environment,” she says. That is debatable on various counts. Some hygienic plastic pallets have a totally smooth, sealed top deck, so there are no pockets, where dust, dirt and other potentially harmful contaminates can build up and the pallet can be easily cleaned manually or with an automated system. Timber pallets can also be problematic when manually handled owing to splinters and exposed nails. This writer has also seen many warehouses using damaged timber pallets which could destabilise their loads but never seen broken plastic pallets.

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