Anatomy of a Warehouse Part 3 - Wooden v Plastic Pallets

A well-known supermarket was forced to apologise and take remedial action a couple of months ago after a BBC Watchdog investigation found that food crates used for their home delivery service were dirty. Tests of bacteria levels ranged from the equivalent of a kitchen floor to that of a kitchen bin. Watchdog even had photos of mould, squashed fruit and even maggots – not likely to be on your shopping list!

The supermarket reassured its customers that it was addressing the issues, including the deep cleaning of every shopping crate and van plus briefing all employees on cleaning and food safety. A costly error - particularly when one considers that the supermarkets already lose between £5 and £7 on every online order.

The dirty crates story got the Zupplychain team thinking about one of our favourite subjects after warehouses - the humble pallet . The Watchdog investigation highlights the importance of products arriving with customers in good order; the pallet plays a critical role in this. But what type of pallet is best? This blog will look at the advantages and disadvantages of both wooden and plastic pallets.

In such a lean marketplace, shipping costs are often the first place where people look to make savings. We don’t think that anybody would be surprised to learn that a wooden pallet costs considerable less to buy than a plastic pallet. A broken wooden pallet is also a lot easier and cheaper to replace (or recycle) than a broken plastic pallet. However, a plastic pallet is more durable, should last longer than a wooden pallet, thus saving money in the long run.

To save shipping costs, it is worth noting that a plastic pallet weighs 30% less than a wooden pallet. This means that plastic pallets are easier to handle for operators so less chance of the pallet or the cargo being damaged. However, plastic pallets are still robust enough to carry heavy loads (up to 700 kilos).

The supermarket dirty crate debacle aside, plastic pallets clearly come out tops in the cleanliness and hygiene stakes making them suitable for use in the food and pharmaceutical industries. Wooden pallets are susceptible to moisture, which in turn causes fungus and bacteria thus making them unsuitable for use with some products for warehouse storage and transport.

Wooden pallets also need to be heat-treated when being used to ship to the 85 countries that have adopted the ISPM 15 regulation for wooden packaging, a list that continues to grow. Non-heat treated pallets sent to one of these 85 countries will face lengthy customs delays and possibly a large fine.

The production and use of both wooden and plastic pallets has environmental repercussions. Although plastic pallets can be used more times than wooden pallets, they are made from oil and do have to be melted down to be recycled. Whereas a wooden pallet is made from a more sustainable resource and a split pallet can even be broken down and recycled or used to repair another split pallet.

We are on the (wooden) fence at Zupplychain as to which pallets are the best and clearly it depends on the user’s storage and distribution priorities. To summarise, here’s a check-list to consider:

  • Is the cargo heavier than 700 kilos? Then it’s probably a wooden pallet that suits best.
  • Are you shipping the goods to somewhere damp or humid? A plastic pallet might be the best option.
  • Are you trying to reduce short term costs? Answer – wooden pallets
  • Will your pallets be coming back? If the answer is no, then wood is definitely the better and cheaper option.
  • Are you shipping internationally? Make sure of the requirements for wood packaging for the country that you are shipping too.
  • Do you care about the environment? The jury’s out on this one! 50/50 split on both plastic and wood with each having positive and negative implications on the environment.

Whether your pallets are wooden or plastic, head to our search facility if your warehouse is full of them and you need some third-party pallet storage urgently.