As the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association states, “Pallets move the world.” Pallets, particularly wooden pallets, are the basic units used to transport goods throughout the country. More than 600 million pallets are manufactured in the U.S. every year. Approximately 90% of those manufactured were wooden pallets, while the remaining 10% were manufactured from corrugated paperboard, metal, or plastic. During the past two decades, both timber prices and landfill fees have increased and have compelled businesses to modify the way pallets are managed.
Pallets made from plastic, metal, or composite materials are a long-lasting alternative to wooden pallets. All three materials are durable, reusable, easy to clean, and recyclable. Despite higher initial costs, these pallets save money in the long run. According to the Purdue University AGVS Research Group, the average life of these pallets is 100 trips, where one trip is defined as five handlings. These pallets usually meet both USDA and FDA standards for pharmaceutical, chemical, grocery, and food processing operations as they can be sanitized and steam-cleaned. They also exhibit low breakage rates and work well with automated material handling systems. Product damage is lowered, and employee safety is increased when using these pallets, because they have no nails, staples, or broken boards.
Plastic, composite, and metal pallets are best used in a closed-loop or slave system where shipping is restricted to moving goods within or between specified plants and facilities. Closed-loop systems operate best under one or more of the following conditions: short-distance shipments, frequent deliveries to the same customer, delivery to a limited number of customers, and/or delivering with company-owned vehicles.
Plastic pallets are created in three general forms. Plastic lumber pallets resemble the wooden pallet with the exception that the boards are made from extruded plastic. Structural foam and thermoformed pallets are distinctive in their style, as they are one solid piece of plastic. These pallets have no nails, screws, or staples, thus reducing product damage and employee injuries. They often offer a grooved deck, a raised lip on the outer edges, and hollow feet that provide nesting of pallets to save storage space. Plastic pallet manufacturers are still trying to create a truly rackable structural-foam or thermoformed pallet. Heat and weight have proven a detriment to these types of pallets because they bend under open racking conditions.
Composite pallets, as their name states, are made of two or more distinct materials. Some are made from a combination of plastics, while others are extrusions of sawdust, wood shavings, and recycled plastics. Composite pallets are fairly new to the pallet industry. They have high loading capacities and racking ability like wooden pallets, but are easily cleaned like plastic pallets.
Metal pallets generally are made of aluminum or stainless steel. They are most often used as slave pallets, which do not leave a facility. Metal pallets are the strongest and most durable pallets on the market. They usually are heavier than their wooden counterparts and have a much higher initial cost. Metal pallets are most often used in a manufacturing setting where a pallet is needed to withhold heavy racking weights, high temperatures, the rigors of conveyor systems, and cleanliness standards set by the FDA and USDA.
Corrugated paperboard pallets
Approximately 4% of manufactured pallets are made from corrugated paper or pressed wood composites. Reasons for using corrugated pallets include light weight, ease of disposal (corrugated board recycling stream), and strength. Some corrugated pallets boast static load capacities as heavy as 30,000 lb (at 70° F and 50% relative humidity). Corrugated pallets are also able to meet the special dimensions and disposal needs for shipping goods to Europe. Some European customers request corrugated pallets because they can be recycled with corrugated boxes. For those interested in completing the loop and buying recycled, corrugated pallets are typically manufactured from recycled paper.
This information was excerpted from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality’s Pallet Management Fact Sheet, available as a PDF here.