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Plastic v wood:you decide

12 December 2012

Firms face a choice in terms of the pallets they use, so HSS asked Timcon and Goplasticpallets to provide views on the respective merits of wooden and plastic varieties.

Firms face a choice in terms of the pallets they use, so HSS asked Timcon and Goplasticpallets to provide views on the respective merits of wooden and plastic varieties.

While both wooden and plastic pallets have particular strengths and qualities, quite often companies are forced to choose between one type and the other.We spoke to the Timber Packaging & Pallet Confederation (TIMCON) and plastic pallets supplier Goplasticpallets to source opinion on the products in the market in a bid to help end users make an informed choice.

What lessons can be learned from the recent controversy on varying interpretations of the ISPM15 regulations?

John Dye, president, TIMCON: Since the introduction of ISPM 15 regulations seven years ago, many countries have adopted them with no disruption to flows of trade and goods around world, as the timber pallet and packaging industry has demonstrated it is able to supply the required volumes of ISPM 15 compliant products.Weâ€â„¢ve seen occasional misinterpretation of the regulations, but swift action by the organisations representing the industry, including TIMCON, FEFPEB and the National Plant Protection Organisations (NPPO) such as the Forestry Commission, which has been crucial in overcoming a potential problem.

Jim Hardisty, md, Goplasticpallets.com: The main lesson to be learnt is one of caution. Exporters using wooden pallets to ship goods to around 40 different countries outside of the EU must take all the necessary precautions to ensure that their wooden pallets are heat-treated and officially accredited in accordance with the international regulation ISPM15. In particular, exporters should make sure that their pallets are in a good state of repair and that the ISPM15 mark is clearly visible, as port officials have the authority to stop goods exported on timber pallets if the palletâ€â„¢s ISPM15 mark is scuffed, if it has surface blemishes, or if it has been repaired and not re-treated.

With exports at an all time low, businesses have a big enough challenge competing to secure valuable export contracts, without having to worry whether their pallets are going to get their goods safely from A to B. In terms of hygiene, which type of pallet is best?

JD: More than 90 per cent of pallets are made from timber. Itâ€â„¢s the material of choice because it is the most sustainable, most economic, most flexible and most hygienic. Timber absorbs carbon and stores it as it grows, which reduces the carbon footprint of a supply chain. It is reusable, repairable and recyclable.

There is considerable scientific evidence that substantiates the claim that timber is a naturally more hygienic material than plastic.Wood has natural antibacterial properties and has a wide range of uses in food and drink in products such as wine barrels, cutting boards, countertops, kitchen utensils, skewers, tooth picks, to name a few. See the www.fefpeb.eu/wood-food website for more information on this.

JH: There is no question that plastic pallets are more suitable for use in hygienic environments than wooden pallets, especially in the pharmaceutical and food sectors.

Wooden pallet contamination issues in the pharmaceutical industry have been on the increase in Europe, including the UK. For example, in May this year Johnson & Johnson recalled at least 117,000 bottles of HIV/AIDS drug Prezista in the UK and other countries following consumer reports of a musty odour. According to scientific tests the cause of contamination was a chemical called 2,4,6- tribromoanisole or TBA, which is caused by the breakdown of another chemical, tribromophenol or TBP, and used in some countries by wooden pallet manufacturers both as a wood preservative and flame retardant. Insufficiently dried wooden pallets exposed to high levels of humidity are particularly susceptible to such contamination.

Which is best in terms of performance provided per cost?

JD:Wooden packaging and pallets are available in a much greater variety of sizes than plastic, whose sizes are constrained by tooling and moulds. Wooden pallets can also be repaired readily with replacement boards and blocks, which are available widely â€â€œ this is not the case with plastic. The average lifespan of a pallet is an estimated seven years, so economic repair is fundamentally important.

Timber is also far and away the least expensive option available. It is cheaper to produce â€â€œ in both economic and environmental terms â€â€œ and broadly repairable and recyclable. In the closed loop pallet pools â€â€œ which are highly successful commercial enterprises with around 359 million pallets in circulation worldwide â€â€œ 99% of the pallets are made from timber for the above reasons.

There are also employment benefits of choosing wooden products.We estimate the manufacture of a timer pallet creates four jobs in diverse areas, including rural locations.Making a plastic pallet would create one job, operating a machine.

JH:When it comes to exports, the cost difference between wooden and plastic pallets is minimal. A nestable plastic pallet costs just 10% more than a new heat-treated wooden pallet. So, the additional cost for using nestable plastic pallets for an export consignment worth £3,000 equates to just 0.06% of the overall order.

With international shipping costs to the US and Asia exceeding £2,000 per 1,000kg pallet, it makes sense to invest an extra £2 or £3 per pallet â€â€œ a tiny fraction of the goods being exported â€â€œ and buy plastic. Historically, wooden pallets have always been cheaper than plastic, although rising timber costs could change that.