Pallets another front in material substitution battles

Plastic or wood? That’s a question in need of an answer at many companies shipping pallets full of goods throughout North America and around the world. Reminiscent of the “paper or plastic?” question asked at grocery checkout counters when plastics began making roads into the paper bag industry decades ago, the new question is a no-brainer if you think about it. Yet, some companies entrenched in old technology just can’t get past their rigid thinking.

Take the National Wooden Pallet and Container Assn. (NWPCA), which is siding with CHEP, an equipment pooling systems service that is a global leader in wooden pallets and plastic container services. CHEP issues, collects, repairs/washes, and re-issues more than 250 million pallets and containers from a global network of service centers, about 80 million pallets in the U.S. alone. It’s the “Goliath” of the pallet business, and wooden pallets are its primary product.

“David” is Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS), a small company that developed a better mousetrap several years ago: plastic pallets with imbedded RFID (radio frequency identification) chips for tracking and reuse. The company has some 7-8 million of its pallets in circulation. The industry trade group has taken to bashing plastics (a popular sport these days), calling the pallets “toxic” on its website and marking the information with a black skull and crossbones.

The argument, claims Bruce Scholnick, president of the NWPCA, is over deca-bromine, a fire retardant used in molding the pallets, that the NWPCA says is hazardous to human health, despite the widespread use of deca-bromine in many consumer products and its approval for use in these many products. Scholnick told me in an interview that the iGPS pallets “use 3.4 lbs. of deca-bromine” in each pallet and that “as pallets are scuffed along the ground or the product itself rubs against the bottom of the top deck, it creates a certain amount of toxic dust— 8% of which is deca-bromine.”

Of course anyone who knows about plastics knows that additives are a small percentage of the overall weight of the total product. Bob Moore, CEO at iGPS and a veteran of the wooden pallet industry (former CHEP boss, in fact), said in an interview that there are only a “few ounces” of deca-bromine in the matrix resins used for each pallet. Scholnick might be heartened to know that there are developments being made in halogen-free fire retardants, which Moore says he is exploring for the iGPS pallets.

The real problem however isn’t that iGPS pallets are “toxic” (they’re not), but that the NWPCA is beginning to see an erosion of the use of wood products (i.e. cutting down trees) to use in things where plastics are a perfectly suitable alternative. “We don’t cut down trees to make pallets,” Scholnick said emphatically. “We use wood products that aren’t suitable for use in building houses.” Still, wooden pallets are fraught with problems, including their porous nature, which can harbor bacteria, bugs, and plant seeds that can potentially introduce strange species into another country. Wooden pallets have to be fumigated with toxic chemicals or heat-treated prior to crossing borders and in international shipments to prevent the spread of non-native plants and bugs.

Additionally, composite wood is used for the “blocks”— chunks of wood that separate the upper and lower decks of the pallet. These blocks are made from wood fragments and sawdust with adhesive that contains urea-formaldehyde, which is flammable, according to information obtained. Due in part to two large wooden-pallet fires in Phoenix, AZ in 2007, the National Assn. of State Fire Marshals began reevaluating the flammability of wooden pallets with composite blocks.

Plastic pallets are growing more popular in industry. Peter Feamster, president of Peter Feamster & Assoc. Inc. (Chesterfield, MI) is a recycler of plastic pallets and containers used by automotive OEMs, managing their programs for reuse/recycling. Feamster explains that the OEMs package the parts used in manufacturing particular makes and models of vehicles for use on the assembly line. When that model year is complete, the OEM cleans out the plant of the pallets and containers marked for that model as the OEM prepares pallets and containers with parts for the assembly of the next model. Some of the plastic pallets can be reused, some need repair, and others are recycled with the regrind shipped to pallet makers to be used in a 50/50 blend to make new pallets.

The large automotive OEMs use plastic pallets almost exclusively, notes Feamster, because they are safer to use around the production floor than wooden pallets. Plus, the vacuum-formed single sheet pallets weigh about 20 lbs., and the twin-sheet formed pallets weigh about 32 lbs.

For shipments overseas, Feamster says his clients, who are almost exclusively automotive manufacturers, prefer plastic. “If they have a hot load that needs to get to a plant in China, for example, they’ve had problems with wooden pallets being quarantined in a containment area for 60 days to ensure that nothing came in with the wood that would cause an environmental issue,” he explains. “Plastic pallets don’t have those problems.”

Moore reckons the deca-bromine issue is a “last-ditch effort” by the forestry products industry to save a dying industry. “Wood just isn’t working in today’s [shipping] environment,” he says. “It’s outlived its usefulness. The iGPS pallet is 47.5 lbs. and meets OSHA recommendations for pallets in the sub-50-lb. range, reducing back injuries, and resulting in reduced injuries from splinters and protruding nails. From the health and safety perspective it doesn’t get any better than a plastic pallet.” [email protected]
                   

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