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Should You Use Wood or Plastic Pallets?

Posted in: News

Pallets are essential for any business that ships products. They ensure your products reach their destination safely, make shipping easier and reduce the need for other packaging materials.

plastic pallets over wood pallets

It is important to that you start by choosing the right pallet. In the past, wood pallets were the default choice for most businesses. Pallets are now, however, made from a range of materials, including plastic, metal and even cardboard. Plastic pallets are the fastest growing, most commonly sold and used alternative to wood.

If you’re considering switching to plastic pallets, we will walk you through the best examples and information why it is a good choice.

Read on to find out more about plastic pallets vs wood pallets for your business.

Using Wood Pallets

Wood pallets usually have a top and bottom deckboard, which are held together by three runners. Most wood pallets are made of decking lumber fastened with either screws or nails. Some wood pallets have panels instead of deckboard strips on top.

There are a number of different styles of wood pallets. Pallets can have two or four forklift entry points. They may also have full decking on the top, bottom or both top and bottom.

Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using wood pallets:

Advantages

  • Lower acquisition cost
  • Repairable
  • Recyclable

Disadvantages

  • Harbor pathogens and other bacteria
  • Unable to clean
  • Nails, screws and splintered wood make them less safe to handle
  • Need to be replaced more frequently

wood pallets

Wood pallets are the most common type of pallet used and will remain so for most outbound shipping.

However, using wood to make pallets brings a number of downsides. Wood is often heavy and breaks easily. This means pallets need to be replaced regularly. Wood is also a difficult material to clean.

In addition, the risk of contamination from wood pallets means they’re not ideal for shipping food. When wood gets wet, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria, which can transfer to food and other sensitive materials. Cleaning these pallets usually means fumigating them.

Using Plastic Pallets

Plastic pallets are proven and growing alternative to wood pallets. In industries where sanitation is a concern, like food and pharmaceutical products, hygienic plastic pallets are the preferred choice.

These pallets have a much longer lifespan than wood pallets as well. They’re more durable and less likely to break down on repeated trips. It is the ideal platform for re-use.

How plastic pallets are constructed helps to account for their durability. Unlike other types of pallets, plastic pallets are usually constructed in one solid piece. This means there aren’t weak spots in the joins. Similarly, these pallets don’t contain nails or screws that can hurt handlers or products.

Like wood pallets, plastic pallets can be constructed in a variety of styles. Custom sizes and styles is a growing need.

Some of the specific advantages and disadvantages of using plastic pallets include:

Advantages

  • Longer lifespan than wood pallets — often more than 10 years
  • No screws or nails make them safer to handle
  • Can be easily cleaned
  • Lighter than wood pallets
  • Makes in process and logistics use easier.
  • Recyclable

Disadvantages

  • Higher initial cost
  • Repairs are more difficult

Plastic pallets also have a lower weight-bearing capacity than wooden pallets. They usually max out at about 1,500 pounds of weight. This means they’re not suitable for very heavy items.

Another major factor is the initial cost. Plastic pallets tend to be more expensive than wooden pallets. Although this cost is usually made up within a few trips, it can be a reason to avoid using plastic pallets for one-way or export shipping.

Types of Pallets for Different Uses

common types of pallets

Not all pallets are the same. From materials to design to dimensions, pallets have a variety of specifications. Some of the most common types of pallets include:

  • Food-grade pallets. These pallets are used when there’s contact with food, and they are most commonly found in food processing and pharmaceutical industries. Plastic food-grade pallets must be made with FDA-approved plastics. Wood food-grade pallets need to be clean and have no breakage or visible repairs. Many food-grade pallets are vented, although specialty spill-proof pallets are sometimes used as well.
  • Hygienic pallets. Unlike the majority of pallets on the market, hygienic pallets have a smooth instead of vented surface. They’re primarily used for food and pharmaceutical products with very strict sanitation requirements. These are almost exclusively plastic pallets.
  • Industrial pallets. These pallets can be used with both light and heavy products and are found primarily in a warehouse setting. They can have visible damage or missing nails or screws and still be approved for use. Industrial pallets also usually have two or four way entries for forklifts, and they have either lumber or plywood surfaces. They can be custom engineered to carry heavy loads and can be made from either wood or plastic. Most industrial pallets are vented, too.
  • Export Pallets. Export pallets are made primarily for one-way shipping or exports because they rarely last beyond two or three uses. Specialty sizes include the 1200 X 800 Euro pallet. Treated or molded wood are the most common materials for export pallets. Plastic pallets have a growing market share due to import restrictions on the delivery side. This pallet type is almost always vented.

Stackable, Rackable and Nestable Pallets

Pallets for almost any use can be designed to stack, rack or nest. These features make both wood and plastic pallets easier to store.

Stackable pallets are the most common type of pallet. They also offer the least space-saving design of these three types. These pallets simply stack on top of one another for storage, and most pallets with a top and bottom deckboard use this design. Stackable pallets can be made from either wood or plastic.

Rackable pallets have either five runners or a picture frame on the bottom of the pallet. They’re designed to maximize stability while storing products. Because of the runner or picture frame design on the bottom, these pallets offer maximum stability. They can be either plastic or wood.

Nestable pallets emphasize space saving. They feature a nine-leg bottom that nests into other pallets. The top of the leg is usually hollow, allowing other pallets to sit easily on top. Pallets for most purposes can use this design. Because of the hollow molded legs, these pallets are usually made of plastic.

Things to Consider When Choosing Plastic or Wood Pallets

There’s not a single answer to the question of whether you should use wood or plastic pallets. The best choice depends on the product shipped, where it’s shipped to, the business’ budget and how the pallets will be used after the initial shipment.

If you’re not sure whether plastic or wood pallets or right for your business, these eight questions can help you decide:

1. How much does the pallet cost?

One of the biggest factors in deciding on wood versus plastic pallets is the cost of the pallet itself. In general, you’ll have a lower initial outlay for a wood pallet. Plastic pallets, on the other hand, have a high initial cost. This is why many companies use wood pallets when they’re just getting started.

The cost of plastic and wood pallets looks very different when spread out over the item’s lifetime. Although plastic pallets have a higher initial cost, they’re more durable and have a longer lifespan than other types of pallets. Take a look at this comparison between plastic and wood pallets:

plastic vs. wood pallets

Plastic Pallets

  • Lifespan: 10+ years
  • Trips per pallet: Moderate to high

Wood Pallets

  • Lifespan: Depends on usage and how many times repaired.
  • Trips per pallet: Low to moderate

Wood pallets, in general, can sustain only a low number of trips. They splinter easily, become contaminated by bacteria or chemicals and have weak points at the joints. Plastic pallets, on the other hand, regularly last for at least 250 trips.

The costs of wood and plastic pallets tend to break even after five to six trips. Once a pallet is used for ten trips, the cost per trip of a plastic pallet is significantly lower than that of a wooden pallet.

This means if you’re using the pallet just once, shipping on a wood pallet may be a better choice. If you’re shipping overseas and unlikely to get the pallet back, consider using a wood pallet as well.

On the other hand, if you tend to reuse pallets, plastic pallets could result in a significant cost savings. If you tend to ship to the same stores or use pallets in your warehouse, plastic pallets are a more economical choice.

2. Do you plan to use your pallets for multiple purposes?

Many shippers use their pallets as part of the display once the materials get to the store. This is particularly common with electronics. However, pallets are regularly used as part of a modular display in the store for items like bottled water, brochures, clothing and toys.

When products are displayed on the pallet, using a higher-quality plastic pallet makes sense. These pallets are more durable and offer a cleaner, more finished appearance. The colors of the pallet can even be custom chosen to match the product.

3. How will pallets be disposed of?

Wood and plastic pallets have both been touted for their environmental benefits as both types of pallets can be recycled. This is a plus for any company interested in environmental sustainability.

However, the actual recycling process of wood and plastic pallets varies.

Plastic pallets can be melted down and reshaped into other plastic goods. It’s common to recycle plastic pallets into new pallets. The recycling process is easy because the pallet contains just one material.

Today, recycling plastic pallets is much easier than it was in the past. Most plastic pallets are printed with a number within the recycling logo. If the recycler or trash hauler accepts plastics with this number, you can simply call to schedule a pickup.

old pallet buyback

Another option is to contact the pallet manufacturer for recycling options. Many plastic pallet manufacturers will collect your old plastic pallets and recycle them into new products. Some businesses even offer a buyback program for old pallets.

Wood pallets can also be recycled, but they go through a different process. They can be recycled via a pallet recycling company. Sometimes they can also be recycled through your waste management service. Like plastic pallets, you’ll simply need to call to schedule a pickup.

When a pallet is recycled, any good scrap lumber is used for new pallets. Wood that’s too damaged to use for new pallets is turned into other products like mulch or animal bedding.

During the recycling process, many materials degrade over time. Other materials can be recycled indefinitely without any degradation. Materials that tend to degrade, like wood, are “downcycled” into other wood-based products like cardboard or paper. The cardboard or paper can then be recycled. However, after a few rounds of recycling, the fibers are too short to use for further products.

Metals, glass and the plastic used in pallets can be recycled indefinitely. This means the materials used to make plastic pallets stay in the supply chain for longer, reducing CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions.

4. Do you ship products that need to meet sanitation standards?

If you ship products that need to meet specific hygiene standards, consider using plastic pallets instead of wood.  If a material spills, hygienic plastic pallets are easy to wash. Food and chemicals can’t seep into the plastic and contaminate future shipments, either.

The risk of contamination explains why food needs to be shipped on special food-grade pallets. These pallets, sometimes called Sam’s Grade pallets, need to be clean, in good condition and have no visible signs of repair. Food-grade pallets are widely required in food manufacturing, food processing and pharmaceutical industries.

Even food-grade wood pallets carry a risk, though. Once wet, wood pallets tend to stay wet for longer and can become a breeding ground for bacteria. Because the wood is porous, it’s easy for spills to seep into the wood and spoil. This in turn becomes a breeding ground for mold and foodborne pathogens.

contaminated wood pallets

In one study, wood pallets from suppliers across the US were tested for foodborne bacteria. The testers found that one in ten wood pallets contained E. coli, and about 1.5 percent contained listeria monocytogenes, a particularly virulent foodborne pathogen. That’s why USDA considers wood pallets a potential reservoir for listeria and other foodborne illnesses.

5. How heavy are the products being shipped?

Weight of the products being shipped can also be a deciding factor when choosing between wood and plastic pallets. Plastic pallets can hold materials up to about 1,500 pounds. Wood pallets are more suitable for heavy items weighing between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds.

Using pallets with the right weight capacity can reduce your need for other shipping materials. Materials that are securely packed on the appropriate pallets are more stable — they’re less likely to fall during transit, and you’re less likely to need additional packaging to protect your products.

Putting more weight than recommended on a pallet can damage the wood or plastic and cause it to break down sooner. That’s why it’s important to use pallets with a load capacity suitable for your product.

In general, it’s easy to determine the maximum weight a pallet can hold. Both wood and plastic pallets usually have a load specification, and custom designed pallets can be engineered to hold a specified weight limit.

6. Are your shipping costs based on weight?

plastic and wood pallet weight

Wood pallets tend to weigh more than plastic pallets, which can be a consideration if your shipping costs are based on weight. The average wood pallet weighs between 30 and 70 pounds. Plastic pallets, on the other hand, can weigh as little as three pounds.

The weight of a pallet is determined by its construction and the materials used. Pallets that are used to carry heavier products tend to have more material and weigh more than those used to transport lightweight items. Similarly, softwood pallets tend to weigh less than hardwood pallets. However, they also have a lower weight capacity than hardwood pallets.

7. Do you ship to countries with pallet regulations

One-way wood pallets for export are the most economical option for shipping. However, if country that’s being shipped to has wood import restrictions, you’ll need to use either plastic pallets or wood pallets that meet the country’s requirements.

There are a number of countries — including Australia, Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom — that have strict requirements about the size, shape and type of materials used in pallets that hold imported products, and many businesses are familiar with the problems these restrictions can cause. Restrictions can be on such specifications like the type of wood that can be used in shipping pallets or whether wood pallets can be used at all.

Wood pallets have restrictions because the wood may harbor invasive insects, fungus or diseases. Although these don’t cause problems here in the U.S., they may be invasive in another location.

Plastic pallets are often preferred because the material doesn’t harbor invasive pests. If needed, it’s also easier to treat plastic pallets before shipping or upon arrival at customs.

If you’re exporting products, it’s important to confirm any pallets you purchase can be shipped to countries that have restrictions.

8. Are your pallets likely to be returned?

Where pallets are used and by whom can have a big impact on your decision to use plastic or wood pallets. In general, plastic pallets are a more economical choice when they’re returned to you after use. Wood pallets are a less costly choice if the pallets are unlikely to be returned to you.

pallets in a warehouse

Plastic is also a better choice for pallets that are repeatedly used within a closed loop environment like a warehouse. Although these pallets will be used in different capacities, they’re unlikely to leave your premises. There is no risk they won’t be returned to you.

If you ship products to the same buyers, plastic pallets can also be a good option. Because these buyers purchase from your business repeatedly, returning plastic pallets is easier for them. Many businesses offer an incentive to buyers who return their plastic pallets as well. Another option is to have your logo or business name molded into the pallet, which makes it more likely to be returned.

If you often ship products one way, look for pallets designed for exports. Wood export pallets are the most common choice. You can also consider plastic export pallets that are designed to meet international shipping requirements. These pallets are an economical option that avoid the difficulties of import restrictions on wood.

Choose ProStack for Your Plastic Pallets

At ProStack, we specialize in plastic pallets to fit a wide range of industries, uses and requirements. Along with standard 40 X 48 plastic pallets, we can design a custom plastic pallet for your products. To find out more about switching to plastic pallets, contact us today.

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