For most manufacturers, pallets are an essential component of the supply chain, but your choice of plastic vs wood pallets can be a difficult decision to make. While it’s estimated that 90-95% of shippers go with wood pallets, the fact is that each type of pallet has its own advantages and disadvantages.
There are many different factors that must be taken into consideration, before choosing one over the other. Ultimately, each manufacturer must decide whether plastic pallets or wood pallets are the best fit for their applications.
There are a number of advantages in using plastic vs wood pallets, with the biggest one being that plastic pallets are generally cleaner. That’s why it’s a popular choice for industries with strict hygiene requirements, such as the fresh/frozen food and pharmaceutical industries. When you use plastic pallets, you don’t generally have to worry about mold or bugs. Plastic pallets are easy to clean, wash, and sterilize because they aren’t porous. Closed-loop warehouse environments often use plastic because their pallets are returned to them, and plastic also works well on pallet wrapping machines.
Plastic pallets are also said to be more durable and weather resistant, although that’s only true up to a point – which we’ll discuss when we get to the disadvantages. Another pro of using plastic is that it is re-usable, but again only under specific circumstances. Plastic pallets contain no fasteners or nails that might come out of the pallet during transport, they don’t splinter, they don’t give off any moisture, and plastic pallets burn at higher temperatures than wood, especially if they’re UL-listed. Lastly, plastic pallets are much lighter than their wooden counterpart, and often makes a nicer store display.
There are a few really big disadvantage to using plastic pallets. The first one is cost. In general, plastic pallets cost about 3 times more than wood pallets. Although a manufacturer can recoup that cost if they get their plastic pallets back for reuse, companies shipping overseas almost never get their pallets back.
Plastic pallets are reusable and may have a longer shelf-life, but they can’t be repaired if they get damaged. In order to recycle a plastic pallets, they must be melted down because they are basically made from oil.
More specifically, plastic pallets are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is created from petroleum or natural gas, and that brings up a point about sustainability. Being made of HDPE means that plastic pallets are not particularly eco-friendly, they come from a non-renewable resource, and they have a significant impact on the environment.
Plastic pallet manufactures claim that plastic pallets are more durable and weather resistant as a key advantage, but there’s a little more to the story. Plastic pallets stored out in the hot Texas sun will become more flexible, instead of maintaining their rigidity. When stored out in the cold of a North Dakota winter, plastic pallets will become more likely to break. Under temperate outdoor weather or temperature controlled conditions, plastic pallets are pretty durable – yes. When considering the durability issue, one must also consider the weight plastic pallets can tolerate. Loads over 1,500 pounds can’t use plastic pallets or they will buckle.
Plastic pallets are lighter, and that’s an advantage, but they also have a smooth, slippery surface that makes them nearly impossible to stack more than a few high. That makes storage of these reusable pallets a real pain in the neck.
Lastly, it’s pretty cost prohibitive to use plastic pallets when you need a custom pallet configuration for your products. In general, plastic pallets come in standard sizes, but that may not work for your products. You can get plastic pallet manufacturers to make custom sizes just for your organization, but you better be ready to pay a whole lot more and commit to buying a lot of them.
As with plastic pallets, there are also a number of advantages to use wood pallets. One of the biggest advantages wood has over plastic is cost. Wood pallets are considerably less expensive than plastic ones (3 times less expensive), but cost shouldn’t be your only concern.
Wood pallets can hold much more weight. In fact, there really is no upper limit on the weight because wooden pallets can be strengthened and built to support just about any weight. Which brings us to another serious advantage of wood pallets over plastic. Wooden pallets can be custom designed to whatever you want to ship. They can also be built out of different woods to make them stronger, if necessary. Where plastic pallets come in pretty standard sizes, wood pallets can be any size you want without adding significantly to the cost, although custom pallets are obviously more costly than “off the shelf” standard sized pallets.
Wood pallets are truly reusable and recyclable. They can be used more than once, and when a wooden pallet sustains damage, it can be repaired. In fact, there are many businesses who specialize in nothing but repairing pallets. When a wooden pallet can no longer be repaired, it can be ground up into mulch or pet bedding, until it finally breaks down and returns to the earth.
Wood pallets are truly eco-friendly.
They are also sustainable and have a very small carbon footprint, something that a lot of companies are trying to minimize in their supply chain.
In relation to pallets, a carbon footprint is the measure of greenhouse gas emissions associated with lifespan of a pallet. Pallets made of wood harvested from a sustainable forest have a negative carbon footprint because the wood actually stores the carbon and it isn’t released into the environment. This is a major difference between wood and plastic.
In fact, trees aren’t cut down specifically to make pallets, as some might believe. The reality is that forests are actively managed, and they are only harvested to make building materials and furniture. Pallets are created out of the lumber that’s left over.
Although we are obviously an organization that makes a living in wood packaging, we acknowledge that there are a few wood disadvantages in the plastic vs wood pallets discussion. It’s often said that wood can’t be used for fragile items, but that really depends on the items. Some items can be insulated with other materials to ensure their protection, and that would probably be the case with either wood or plastic.
On the other hand, the fasteners and nails used in wood pallets can potentially cause damage if they become dislodged. It’s pretty rare, but it is possible.
Wood pallets are also made out of… wood.
Wood pallets can, in fact, have splinters. They aren’t as slick and smooth as plastic pallets, which means they are more easily stacked (Oops – that’s an advantage).
Plastic pallet manufacturers often say that wood pallets splinter, buckle, and break easier than plastic. We would argue that this is only true when pallets are poorly constructed, carrying the wrong load for the pallet configuration, or when pallets are improperly loaded, unloaded, and moved. Although we don’t sell recycled pallets, we’ve heard that some companies have issues with pallet performance when they’re using recycled pallets, rather than using new pallets.
1. Your Industry and Products
Your first consideration when trying to decide plastic vs wood pallets is the industry in which you operate. Some industries only use wood, others only plastic. It makes sense to stick with the standard for ease of transport and customer expectation, unless you have a very good reason not to. Keep in mind that 90-95% of companies use wood.
You also need to consider the items that you’re moving. For some manufacturers, like products requiring pallet sterilization, plastic is the best fit. In other cases, wood makes more sense – Heavy machinery comes to mind.
2. Product Weight
The weight of the products that you’re shipping will make a big difference in the type of pallet you choose. Anything over 1,500 pounds should go with wood. If you’re unsure, there are several questions you should ask your pallet manufacturer before deciding.
3. Sensitivity of Your Product
If the items you’re shipping are extremely sensitive, you may need to consider additional cushioning or bracing for your products no matter which type of pallet you use. If your products are so sensitive that a lose nail or fastener might spell disaster in the way of puncturing, like canisters under high pressure for example, then maybe plastic is a better option – if plastic will support the weight.
4. Will You Export?
If you’re planning to export your products, wood is the way to go. Plastic pallets are expensive, and you’re unlikely to get them back from overseas. Wood pallets will need to meet export compliance rules, but you’ll still come out way ahead on expense.
5. Pallets as Part of Store Display
If you’re planning to use your pallets as part of an in-store display, plastic might look better than wood. In many cases, such as the warehouse and big box stores, it won’t really matter either way.
6. Is Cost the Most Important Factor?
If the cost of pallets is your most urgent consideration, then wood is the way to go. Plastic pallets cost 3 times more than wood pallets.
7. Will You Need Custom Pallet Sizes?
When it comes to plastic vs wood pallets, customization possibilities are one of the reasons that many manufacturers choose wood. It’s difficult and cost prohibitive to get plastic pallets in custom sizes and with extra features like blocking. Wood makes customization simple and cost effective.
8. Supply Chain Carbon Footprint
If one of the mandates of your company is to reduce your carbon footprint in the supply chain, then wood pallets are the obvious choice over plastic. Not only does wood offer a smaller, or even negative, carbon footprint, but wood is also the eco-friendly and sustainable option.
Plastic pallets, on the other hand, are made from high-density polyethylene, which is petroleum or natural gas. That makes them a non-renewable resource.
While we tried to make this an unbiased comparison of plastic vs wood pallets, our business revolves around wood. Obviously, we think wood is the best fit for most applications, but there are definitely times when a plastic pallet would serve a manufacturer better.
In the end, you’ll need to consider a lot of different factors before choosing a pallet material. We’ve discussed a lot of different factors above, but the final decision may require that you weigh the trade-offs. For example, you may decide that shipping your super fragile products on wood, fully expecting to write a small percentage off, is less expensive than shipping on plastic pallets. In other words, the small risk of damage is worth the lower cost. Here are some other examples:
- Shipping on plastic pallets might make a prettier display in the store, but is it worth the added expense?
- Is it worth taking a one-size-fits all plastic pallet and risking damage to your product, or would a custom wood solution be better?
- Is it worth it to your company to go with a non-renewable resource over an eco-friendly option? Will your customers agree?
There are also times when plastic is really the only option. Applications that require pallet sterilization is one of those situations. It’s nearly impossible to sterilize wood to the level necessary for some pharmaceutical applications, for example (although many pharmaceutical shipments don’t require sterilization).
The bottom line is that manufacturers need to weigh all their options, as well as the risk/reward, to make a good decision for their individual applications. If you need help figuring out if wood is right for your situation, get in touch with us. We’re happy to help!