Is It Time to Consider Plastic Pallets?

Pallets and pallet racks. The two go together like peanut butter and jelly. Without the pallet, there is little need for pallet racks. You find a variety of racking options in many warehouses and distribution centers. When it comes to pallets for racks, there is only one choice in spite of another option.

Wooden pallets are the workhorse of material handling, commanding a hefty market share of 91% according to the latest pallet survey by Modern Materials Handling. Although there is no specific data by use, one could easily conclude market share of rackable pallets is higher still. There are two main reasons wooden pallets dominate the market in general and specifically rackable pallets:

1. Cost
2. Strength

Still, other alternatives exist with plastic pallets leading the way. Plastic pallets have been around for more than 30 years but received little attention until the late 1990s. These pallets generally fit niche markets such as the grocery industry. Situations requiring pallet racking has not been an area of success for plastic pallets. The reason? Refer back to the reasons why wooden pallets dominate—cost and strength.

The cost for a standard wooden pallet used to transport product is in the neighborhood of $10. Comparable plastic pallets vary in price. Most generally are double the cost or higher. Wooden pallets used in racking also tend to cost more. However, plastic pallets designed for racking are at least 35% higher with some more than 50% more expensive. Plastic pallet manufacturers argue this cost actually is less when considering the life cycle of both pallets.

Strength is the key issue when it comes to rackable plastic pallets. Most pallet racks support pallets on the edges with little or no support in the center. This is not a problem for wooden pallets. Wood doesn’t flex where plastic does. Without some manner of support for the center of the pallet, the plastic flexes more resulting in a pallet that sags in the middle. This not only shifts the load and endangers the product. The flexing makes it difficult to remove from the rack.

Plastic pallet manufacturers compensate for this by adding in steel supports to reduce the amount of flex. This does solve the flex issue but adds extra weight and cost.

However, several changes may be creating an opportunity for rackable plastic pallets. Increasing automation in the warehouse/distribution center does not favor wood pallets. Safety and cleanliness are major concerns. Wooden pallets damage easily. It exposes safety concerns for workers and equipment. Things such as wood chips/splinters, sharp edges and nails increase the potential for injury. As automation continues to expand in the warehouse, these same safety hazards for people threaten to damage expensive equipment.

Cleanliness is another reason attitudes on wooden pallets are changing. Industries such as pharmaceutical, food and electronics require an ultra-clean environment for their products. Plastic pallets are also resistant to infestations and bacterial growth caused by spills. These issues are causing some operations to rethink the use of rackable plastic pallets.

Are plastic pallets ready to take over your racks? Probably not. But technological, environmental and regulatory perceptions are changing.

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