Plastics Industry Offers Alternatives to Wooden Pallets
Pallets and transport crates consume a lot of wood, around six million cubic meters a year, a quarter of Germany’s sawn timber production. As the timber market becomes tighter, pallet prices are also rising. Alternatives are therefore being sought. These are often made of plastic.
Nothing works in logistics without pallets. Whether yoghurt or industrial machinery, practically every good is transported between producer, warehouse, retailer, or other partners on pallets. While wood has long been the first choice for this, alternatives are increasingly being sought. This is because the preferred spruce wood in particular could become scarce in the future due to climate change, bark beetles, and the like. The coronavirus year 2021 provided a foretaste of this, when the construction boom and high demand from abroad caused prices to skyrocket and pallets became scarce and expensive.
Alternatives include molded fiber pallets made of pressed paper fibers, corrugated cardboard, or even pressed wood, the so-called Inca pallet. Manufacturers such as Smurfit Kappa, Kraftpal, Telos, and many others offer alternative pallets that are becoming increasingly stable and lightweight at the same time. However, these are comparatively sensitive to moisture and break more easily. Pressed wood pallets, on the other hand, require wood. And they usually do not reach the load capacity of a Euro pallet of up to 1,500 kilos.
More Hygienic Alternative to Wood
And thus, the search for wood alternatives often ends with plastic. Numerous manufacturers have now developed their own high-strength plastic pallets, such as Craemer, Orbis Europe, or the Lidl Schwarz subsidiary PreTurn. They are based on the dimensions of classic wooden pallets. PreTurn, for example, has built up a closed pool exclusively with self-developed Euro and half pallets made of plastic. The idea was born out of the search for a more stable alternative to the Düsseldorf half-pallet, they say. Pooling service provider IPP has taken over the plastic pallet pool from competitor Zentek in order to make plastic pallets a mainstay of its business. Plastic is particularly in demand on the first mile for FMCG suppliers, in the food trade or in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, where strict hygiene regulations apply.
But what exactly are the advantages and disadvantages of plastic compared to wood? The first is more hygienic in use. In principle, plastic pallets can simply be washed after each use. This is not possible with wooden pallets. This is why plastic is often used in hygienically sensitive areas. However, the wooden pallet industry has commissioned its own hygiene report to prevent a one-sided picture from emerging. On behalf of the European Pallet Association (Epal), the Institute for Wood Technology in Dresden examined the bacterial load of wooden and plastic pallets in 2020. The result: wood has a naturally higher antibacterial activity than plastic. Contrary to what is often claimed, the rough wood is not a breeding ground for bacteria per se – in contrast to the typical abrasion marks on plastic pallets. However, for use in hygiene-critical areas, wooden pallets cannot simply be washed off, but must either be fumigated with methyl bromide or heat-treated.
And what about ecology? PreTurn speaks of fewer than 200,000 defective pallets per year with 18 million rotations with its own half-pallet. With the same number of rotations with the Düsseldorf half-pallet, 3.6 million of these would have had to be repaired or replaced. In a study by the plastic pallet manufacturer Orbis, the company’s own plastic pallets managed around 200 cycles before they broke, while wooden pallets only managed eleven under the same conditions. This saves resources and costs, they say. However, plastic initially costs many times more to purchase. In addition, primary material is often used.
Michael Horstendahl, a freelance packaging consultant, considers eleven rotations to be very few – “perhaps for disposable pallets.” Euro pallets, on the other hand, could easily make 50 rounds, especially as they can be repaired several times. This is not possible with plastic pallets – to him a clear disadvantage.
In principle, however, the packaging expert sees the problem elsewhere. “We won’t have enough wood or enough recyclates in the future to cover the demand for transport packaging.” It is, therefore, important to reduce packaging in general. In this scenario, he believes that replacing wooden pallets with plastic pallets, which would then be made of primary material in case of doubt, is definitely an option. In other areas, however, this is simply not possible. Horstendahl advises, for example, machine manufacturers, who ship machines weighing several tons all over the world. “I can't imagine how that would work without wood,” he says.