Saturday, 16 October 2021

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Are Wooden Pallets the Future?

Most people in the world have seen a wooden pallet. They are extremely popular for many reasons. One of the main reasons they are so popular is because they are easy to make and do not cost a lot of money to produce. It is also easy to get one’s hands on them. They are great for start-up businesses and even the most established businesses in the world. Wooden pallets are also durable and overall, pretty reliable. If they ever break, they can be easily either screwed or nailed back together. They have served their purpose for a long time, but their reign as best pallet option might be over.

Wooden Pallet Facts

In the US, wooden pallets are by far the most popular type of pallet. Over 90% of the pallets used in the US today are made of wood. Pallets in the US can be made of three different types of wood: high density hardwood (Birch, Cherry, Maple, etc.), low density hardwoods (Walnut, Poplar, Willow, etc.), and softwood (Cedar, Pine, Spruce, etc.). There are about 2 billion wooden pallets in circulation in the US, and about 500 million pallets are made each year. One of the main problems associated with wooden pallets is that they are only used once and then either thrown away or burned. Of the wooden pallets, 54% are only used for one shipment. This is also one of the reasons why they are used by so many different companies and how they have become so popular. Since companies only use their pallets once, they want a relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain option as possible. They do not want to spend extra money on plastic or metal pallets to only get one use out of them. They do not want to see their investment go to waste. The fact that wooden pallets are only used once is a downfall of wooden pallets, but it also is one of the main reasons that they are so widely used.

Wooden Pallet Flaws

As successful as wooden pallets have been in the past, there may be better alternatives in the future due to some of the flaws associated with wooden pallets. One flaw that they have is that they break and lose strength from humidity. Over time, from the wood absorbing water from humidity and the stress of the load, wooden pallets become less and less reliable and can break. That is just one of the disadvantages to using wooden pallets.

Another disadvantage of wooden pallets is the fact that so much wood has to be used to produce the number of pallets that are needed in the US and around the world. In the US, about 1,000,000 acres of trees are used each year to replenish the demand of pallets, since most are just used once and then thrown away. It takes about 40 years to replenish 1,000,000 acres of trees, so the damage to the world’s forests is massive. Estimates show that 137 animal, plant, and insect species are lost each day due to deforestation. That equals about 50,000 species a year. That number is probably astronomically higher than what most people probably thought. Wooden pallets are not the sole reason the world’s forests are being cut down, but they are a major contributor. This is also a situation that can be improved since most of the wooden pallets are only being used once and not ever recycled. This problem can be tackled and can slow down the world’s deforestation and can help the planet as a whole and future generations.

Pallet Alternatives

There are a few alternatives to wooden pallets. Many companies have gone to using plastic pallets, corrugated cardboard pallets, metal pallets, and even some combo pallets. Some of the combo pallets are: corrugated cardboard, banana fibers, use of resistant bumpers, and even coatings to wooden pallets to improve their qualities. While some of these alternatives have wood in them, it is much less wood and some of the wood used to build them is recycled. Each of these different solutions have their strengths and weaknesses, just as wooden pallets have their strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths and Weaknesses of various Pallets

Wood: To fully understand the pallet spectrum, their needs to be a baseline set, and the baseline will be the qualities of wooden pallets. Some positive attributes of wooden pallets are that they are strong, slip resistant, durable, and easily repairable if broken. They are also inexpensive and are available everywhere. Some weaknesses of wooden pallets are that they can lose their strength and break when in a humid environment and are usually used just once and then thrown away or burned and are a major contributor to the world’s deforestation. Some other negative qualities that wooden pallets have is that they can splinter from impacts; loose or rusty nails can damage the packages that are on top of them and can even hurt the people trying to move them. Wooden pallets can also harbor different pathogens, such as E Coli and Listeria. This can be detrimental to packages or the people moving the packages. Overall, wooden pallets are good for companies that only ship one way because they are so cheap and easily available.

Plastic: The positives of plastic pallets are that they are far more reusable than wooden pallets. They also do not lose strength over their lifetime due to humidity. Another positive is that they are usually lighter than wooden pallets, which can save money for the company and allow airplanes to carry more cargo than with wooden pallets. They are also easier to clean and are much safer than their wooden counterparts. Plastics pallets do not have any nails or splinters that can hurt workers, and they interlock so that stacking them is much safer. They can also hold a decent amount of weight compared to wooden pallets. One negative is that plastic pallets are more expensive than wooden pallets. This is one of the main deterrents from companies switching from wooden to plastic pallets. Another negative is that plastic pallets are usually more slick than wooden pallets and can cause packages to slip when placed on top of them. They are also much harder to find in bulk compared to wooden pallets. Overall, plastic pallets are more durable and recyclable than wooden pallets but are also more expensive and slippery. They are a good choice for companies that want to reuse their pallets for a long period of time.

Corrugated Cardboard: Corrugated cardboard pallets are extremely lightweight and are produced at a lower cost than other pallet options. It is much less expensive to ship cardboard pallets due to their weight and the fact that they are made at a low cost. Cardboard pallets have major disadvantages though. They have to be constantly replaced because they are not as durable as other alternatives. If the cardboard gets wet, it loses most of its strength. The constant replacement of cardboard pallets can drive the cost up and can end up being more expensive than other options. Corrugated cardboard pallets are a good option for light one and done shipping, but for most other situations, they are not the best option for companies to choose. Their constant replacement can drive up costs compared to other pallets that are more durable.

Metal: Metal pallets are another good alternative to wooden pallets. They are extremely strong and durable and are also easily cleaned. Aluminum pallets can be made of 100% recycled aluminum and can even be recycled and made into more pallets, or other products, if they are ever damaged. Around 75% of all aluminum that has ever been smelted is still in use today. Aluminum can also be recycled an infinite number of times without degrading its quality. Metal pallets are the safest and offer the best protection for packages being shipped on them. There are a few downsides to using aluminum pallets though. One being that they are more expensive than the other alternatives. They are also heavier than other options and that can also increase the price of using aluminum pallets. Aluminum pallets are a great option for companies that ship expensive or fragile products in a closed loop system because they can use the same pallets over and over again and be assured that their products are on the safest pallets available.

Composite: Composite pallets combine the properties of all of the materials. Banana fiber has been used as the blocks for pallets while wood is used for the framing. Banana fiber is more sustainable than using entirely wooden pallets. Some wooden pallets have impact resistant bumpers to allow them to be able to withstand impacts better and not splinter. This increases the overall durability of the pallets. Some companies have even coated wooden pallets in a plastic which allows the pallet to have the best qualities of both types of pallets. There are other types of composite pallets, but they basically all just try to either combine the best properties of two or more pallets or try to reduce the amount of wood that is used in each pallet.

Why Companies Would Change

There are a lot of different pallet options for companies to choose from based on their shipping methods. Again, most companies opt for the less expensive and more available option which is wooden pallets. It is like how the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” This method has worked for a long time and will probably not change drastically any time soon. It will change if a few things happen such as if a lot of big and powerful companies decide to change and basically tell everyone to change, or if the world’s sustainability state really goes down and demand for wood skyrockets. If demand for wood skyrockets, it would make wood cost more, which would make the manufacturing of wooden pallets more expensive. As stated before, the main reason that people use wooden pallets is because they can be purchased at a low price. If the price of wooden pallets goes up, then many companies will find a better alternative. Wooden pallets will be used for a long time unless something crazy happens and forces companies to seek better alternatives to wooden pallets.

That still does not mean that wooden pallets are the best pallets to use, especially when it comes to sustainability. That is the main fault with wooden pallets. They are not sustainable and take up a lot of earth’s natural resources just to be used once and then get burned or thrown away. That is the problem that needs to be tackled. The major companies of the world need to realize that using an alternative to wooden pallets is a much more sustainable option.

Best-Case Scenario

The most sustainable option is for every company in the world to either use metal or plastic pallets and completely eliminate the use of wooden pallets. The main reason that companies still opt for wooden pallets is because they are reliable and relatively cheap. Their thought is why would, more expensive, plastic pallets be better if they are only used once. The only way this would work is if the pallet industry was standardized and every company had to switch to either plastic or metal pallets. Then, companies could not say that they want to use wood because their pallets are only used once. The companies would get a constant flow of other plastic or metal pallets that can replenish their stock. This switch would help save companies money too. They would not have to constantly buy new wooden pallets because their other ones have been thrown away. It could just be an endless loop of pallet recycling from company to company. If the pallets are ever damaged or broken, they can just be melted down and molded back into a new pallet. This is the best-case scenario, and it would help eliminate the waste of wooden pallets (which would save millions of trees each year), save companies money (due to using the same pallets over and over again and not buying new ones), and streamline the shipping industry due to the standardized pallets. It would be a great switch that would make the pallet industry more sustainable for generations to come.

References

https://www.mmh.com/article/seven_alternative_pallets_for_greener_operations

https://www.sustainabletransportpackaging.com/blog/pros-cons-different-pallets

https://igps.net/blog/2019/06/13/the-disadvantages-of-wood-pallets-why-wood-isnt-for-everyone/

https://igps.net/blog/2019/04/25/wood-pallet-alternatives-why-wood-isnt-the-best-pallet-material/

https://circularsupplychains.com/2019/11/06/wooden-pallets-cost-us-more-than-you-know/

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