November 2008 | How-To | Ten Tips

Selecting Pallets: Wood vs. Plastic

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Wood remains the most common pallet material used in the United States. But for about five percent of shippers, plastic is a better choice for moving goods. How does a shipper choose? Should you change to a new pallet material? Steven Mazza, president of S&B Pallet Co., Plainfield, N.J., and member of the board of directors of the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association, offers these tips for choosing between wood and plastic.

1. Understand the differences.Wood pallets are recyclable, can be repaired, are less costly, and can hold more weight than plastic. But they also give off moisture, splinter, harbor bugs, and contain fasteners that can damage products. Plastic pallets are durable, clean, bug-free, weather-resistant, and contain no fasteners. They also cost three times the price of wood, are not easily repaired, are not as stiff, and have fire safety ratings.

2. Consider your industry. Industries that operate in closed-loop warehouse environments often use plastic pallets. Because their pallets are returned, the pharmaceutical, automotive, dairy, and beverage industries purchase plastic pallets to maintain costs.

3. Determine the weight of the products you ship.Plastic pallets are most suitable for shipments weighing 1,500 pounds or less. Wood pallets are best for heavy items weighing 1,500 to 3,000 pounds.

4. Analyze your pallet management system. If you use wood and are not in a closed-loop system, consider using a third party to pay per trip rather than per pallet, and transferring that cost to your customer. If you use plastic, you should get your pallets back. If you are unhappy with the return rate, consider outside pallet management.

5. Recognize environmental impact. Plastic pallets have a longer shelf life and go back into the system, but if damaged they cannot be repaired; they are made from oil and must be melted down to be recycled. Wood pallets, however, are made from a sustainable natural resource and are easily repaired and recycled.

6. Consider your product's fragility. Wood pallets have fasteners that can cause problems with fragile items. If you ship paint cans, for example, fasteners can come loose, puncture the cans, and cause product damage. In that case, plastic is the better choice for the product you move.

7. Determine if pallets will serve a dual purpose. Will your pallets also be used as a store display? The electronics industry utilizes plastic pallets for shipping because, in many cases, the pallet becomes a display and then is picked up and returned to the distributor.

8. Examine trade-off costs. If you move fragile products, weigh the cost trade-off. Is the cost of a pricier pallet higher than the cost of damaged products, shipment delays, and disgruntled customers?

9. Understand warehouse fire codes. Plastic pallets burn at a much higher temperature than wood. If you invest in plastic, make sure you understand the fire codes and purchase UL-listed plastic pallets.

10. Educate yourself on new exporting rules. For shipping overseas, use wood pallets. You won't get the pallets back, and the cost of plastic could be prohibitive. New rules govern exporting shipments on wooden pallets, so familiarize yourself with ISPM 15 code regulations.

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