Plastic Pallets vs. Wooden Pallets: An Ongoing Debate for Environmentalists and Manufacturers

by Marjorie Steele, Editor for IQS

Unless your facility manufactures AGVs, cars or other large equipment, your products are very likely stacked and shipped to distribution centers on pallets. Until the last few decades, the vast majority of pallets were made from wood, which was the material of choice for three main reasons: 1) it’s inexpensive, 2) it’s easily constructed and 3) it’s easily disposed of.

Environmentalists have raised concerns over the short lifespan of wooden pallets, noting that wood is perhaps TOO convenient for manufacturers and distributors to use, as many wooden pallets only make 5 trips before being reprocessed, recycled or, most commonly, tossed in a landfill. Manufacturers and distributors can afford wooden pallets’ short lifespan because the material is so inexpensive.

Enter plastic pallets. Costing several times as much per unit as wooden pallets, plastic pallets offer several advantages over their organic counterparts, including longer lifespan, sanitation and recyclability. Let’s take a comparative look at wooden and plastic pallets’ performance.

Plastic Pallets Wooden Pallets
Average Lifespan 100 trips 5-25 trips
Average Cost $35 $7
Impact Resistance Mid to High Low to Mid
Moisture Resistance High Low
Sanitation/Bacterial Resistance High Low
Maintenance Requirements Mid to Low Mid to High
Product Safety High Mid
Insect Infestation Susceptibility Low High

Particularly for food, beverage and delicate product shipping, plastic pallets are an obvious choice given these capabilities. Plastic pallets can be branded or embedded with a tracking chip so that the original purchaser can recoup his or her original investment. ROI on plastic pallets is much higher than on wooden pallets due to lifespan, and wooden pallets can develop splinters and protruding nails which damage products and/or handlers.

However, environmentalists have recently raised several points in this debate which help to even the scale. While it’s true that some wooden pallet manufacturers use timber from virgin forests and hardwood trees, most use lumberyard scrap. Damaged wooden pallets are commonly recycled, used to repair other damaged pallets, used as fuel for industrial processes or remanufactured into wood flooring. Surprisingly enough, wooden pallets have far higher fire safety ratings than plastic pallets which, although more difficult to ignite, burn hotter and spread fire through melted polymers which release harmful toxins into the air as they burn.

For this reason, federal regulations regarding facility fire codes are more strict for plastic pallet storage than for wooden pallet storage. Plastic pallet manufacturers have attempted to work around this by treating pallets with deca-bromine, a chemical which quickly degrades into a dangerous toxin. Several countries and states have banned deca-bromine, and many manufacturers have ceased to treat pallets with deca-bromine due to health and environmental concerns, but distinguishing between treated and non-treated pallets once they have left the manufacturer is difficult.

Let’s take a look at how plastic pallets and wooden pallets compare in regards to environmental sustainability, worker and facility safety.

 

Plastic Pallets Wooden Pallets
Fire Resistance Low Mid to High
Regulation/Facility Safety Costs Mid Low
Material Resources Non-renewable Renewable
Recycling Capacity 100% 90%
Chemical/Toxin Health Risks Mid to High Low to Mid

It’s interesting to see that wooden pallets do not pose nearly as high environmental and fire safety risks as is often assumed. Although plastic pallets are likely to remain the cost-effective choice for many applications, it’s possible that wooden pallets still have a place in the manufacturing and distribution industries.

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