Going the plastic route

Plastic palletsAs part of a growing economic centre, South African companies represent a big chunk of pallet users. Experts estimate that the country’s pallet manufacturers produce 30-45 million pallets annually to cope with the growing demand. As expected, this is putting increasing pressure on them to reduce their carbon footprint.

Locally, almost 80 per cent of freight is moved by road, and the road transport industry alone is responsible for 18 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Hence, constructive management of pallet pools is needed and using eco-friendly materials should be considered to assist in lowering carbon output. Unfortunately though, only a small number of companies have implemented such solutions. Over the years, many options, such as pallets made out of steel, corrugated boards, virgin and recycled plastics, have been examined, but the norm still remains the wooden pallet.

Flaws of wooden pallets

Wooden pallets, although being cheaper and easier to buy, have a very short life span, damage and warp easily and must be replaced and repaired after a limited use, and most end up in a landfill. Production of wooden pallets is putting immense pressure on South Africa’s wood reserves and wood importation, mainly from South America, is rampantly growing. It is estimated that, within the next 2-3 years, the country will become a net importer of 6 000 tonnes of wood annually. This, in itself, is making government put pressure on companies to find viable alternatives – pallets being an important part of the solution.

Developed markets have started moving away from extensive use of wooden pallets and, in fact, the European Union (EU) has even put a ban on using wooden pallets for imports of specific products, such as foodstuffs. Wooden pallets are susceptible to bacterial and chemical contamination and the treatment processes these have to go through are also debatable. Chemical fumigation involves the use of methyl bromide (a byproduct of cyanide), the use of which was restricted by the Montreal Protocol due to its role in ozone depletion. The EU has banned completely its use and imported pallets treated using this chemical are not allowed into a number of European destinations.  The alternative is heat treatment, which is more costly and also adds considerably to the burden of CO2 emissions. 

Going the plastic route

Although more costly, plastic is increasingly being adopted as it responds better to different industries’ needs. There are two types of plastic pallets available locally, each with their own pros and cons.

The one piece moulded pallets are often imported, made from virgin plastic, and have a longer life span and weigh a lot less than it wooden counterpart. These pallets do, however, have major flaws – the biggest one being that they are not repairable. Once broken, they are unusable, only good to sell them as scrap plastic to be recycled.

The wooden pallet lookalike are fairly new, built in the same manner as wood. Their structure is a build-up of planks of various sizes, which allows them to be repairable. They are easily sanitised, have high odour resistance, a much longer life span than other pallets (except for steel), are impervious to weather and moisture, and are known to meet the most exacting needs of logistics and warehouse operators (particularly for cold storage and food processing environments). The only known flaw is the weight, which is more than wood.

As they are made out of a mix of either virgin, but mainly recycled plastics, they are aligned to the environmental compliance in supporting recycling, retaining wood reserves and lowering carbon emissions. The additional benefit is that a company is guaranteed to save, over the long term.