Whether to use wood or plastic pallets has long been a debate in the logistics industry. Both have advantages, depending on the circumstances. Some argue that wood, the traditional favourite, is far more cost effective. Others say that plastic pallets last longer and cost less to maintain, making them more economical over their working lives. Whatever your opinion, recent years have seen the debate intensify dramatically.
So what happened? Put simply, a short supply of wood meant pallet prices rocketed. Fears of bird-flu spreading to the UK provoked contamination fears, and legislation to control pest problems meant increased shipping costs for wooden pallets. Plastic pallets have come down in real-term price too, making them more economical. These issues have put the use of wooden pallets under severe scrutiny.
Looking at these issues in detail, the most worrying is the depleting supply of timber. Demand far outweighs the supply and as a result, the worlds forests are being felled faster than they can grow. Forests prevent soil erosion and help stabilize the worlds climate, consequently this is an environmental concern. The cost implications have been enormous and have thrown the economical advantages of wood pallets into sharp question.
Disposal of waste timber also impacts the environment. Millions of tonnes of wood are consumed every year. Only a small percentage is recycled. In the UK, it is estimated that wood packaging accounts for 670,000 tonnes of waste timber a year. Much of this is incinerated, releasing concentrated doses of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This adds to the greenhouse effect which is changing the worlds climate. Some waste timber is buried in landfill sites, but slow decomposition causes a problem. Businesses are now looking for other options.
Recent years saw the bird-flu epidemic escalate, with thousands of birds culled to limit the spread of the disease. As wooden pallets cannot be sanitised, they are often discarded after one use, especially if they have been transporting meat. This adds to the waste problems. Plastic pallets are easily sanitised by steam cleaning and pressure washing, making them hygienic. They can be used repeatedly, with little chance of contamination.
Because plastic pallets are easy to clean, they are popular with pharmaceutical, food and beverage companies. These kinds of businesses require clean, hygienic, safe transport. The fact that plastic pallets are immune to moisture, fat, acids, solvents and chemicals has proven to be highly advantageous. It is also a contributory factor to the expansion of the plastic pallets market.
Plastic can be reused more often, is cheaper to recycle and is not in short supply. It is not a villainous element. It can be quickly and easily recycled at low cost, making it environmentally friendly and cost efficient.
ISPM15 is an international phytosanitary measure, first introduced in 2003 to stem the spread of pests associated with shipping goods on wooden pallets. Wood is the breeding ground of insects such as the Asian Longhorned beetle, which burrows into trees. Through importing and exporting, the beetle was artificially introduced into other countries in wooden packaging material and with no natural predators in these new environments, devastated woodlands around the world.
The majority of the main trading countries, such as the UK and the US, are already enforcing ISPM15. These also include Canada, China, Turkey, Argentina, and Japan.
ISPM15 specifies that wooden pallets must be treated before international shipping in one of two ways. The first is heat treatment. This involves heating the wood to a core temperature of 56C for a minimum of 30 minutes. The second is fumigation, when methyl bromide (a lethal chemical suspected of causing cancer) is used to fumigate the wood. Both these treatments are time consuming and expensive. Plastic pallets do not harbour pests like wooden ones. As a result, they are exempt from the ISPM 15 legislation. They do not require any expensive treatments before shipping abroad.
Plastic pallets utilise space better in warehouses and on lorries and weigh up to 40% less than wooden ones. This reduces transport, storage and handling costs. Less energy is required to transport them, saving even more money. Plastic pallets also have a longer working life. The technology and cost of plastic pallets means they are less expensive over their working lives than wooden ones.
So what conclusions can we draw? ISPM15 certainly gives plastic pallets the advantage when it comes to shipping overseas. They do not require treatment (or proof of treatment). Often, only the purchase price of a pallet is considered. If maintenance and transport costs are examined over working life, plastic pallets are much more cost-effective. Plastic pallets have become a practical, realistic, economical choice.
In terms of hygiene, plastic pallets are also the clear winner. They are far easier to clean and do not harbour pests like wooden ones. They are better in automated systems. They do not chip or contain nails, and weigh less. They also protect our forests by helping to conserve valuable wood supplies.