Wood or plastic? The advantages and disadvantages of different pallet types

There is no such thing as an ideal pallet which has a suitable size for all applications. Neither is there such a thing as an ideal material for producing a pallet. Despite the well-known advantages of plastics, it is wooden pallets that have been predominant in shipping for years. Why? Because after their useful life they can be remodelled to have a second life as stylish furniture? Obviously, there are more serious reasons than this.

Wooden pallets or plastic pallets? The decision you make seems obvious: the cheapest one. And here the stumbling blocks arise, because purchase price is not the only cost you incur.

Wooden pallets – the power of price and simplicity

Wooden pallets offer hard-to-beat benefits:

  • price – abundant availability of raw materials and an uncomplicated production process allows the price to remain low;
  • simple construction for production and repair – you do not have to possess either advanced technology to make a wooden pallet or complicated tools to repair it;
  • ease of disposal – wood from a worn out pallet which has no further commercial use can be reused in numerous ways – from making good firewood to the paper production;
  • flexible dimension adjustment – production of a small number of a non-standard wooden pallets does not involve such high costs and may be achieved with simple tools;
  • ease of resale – low price and the reusability make it relatively easy to resell used wooden pallets.

You may reuse only pallets which are designed for that. You can easily recognize them thanks to EPAL mark or, in the case of reconditioned ones, thanks to the repair nail placed on the middle block. These markings guarantee that the pallet has been manufactured and repaired at a certified plant, and thus possesses the required parameters (dimensions, capacity) and is safe to be used.

To sum up: wooden pallets are a winner because of their price and versatile simplicity – they are easy to manufacture, repair, resell and recycle.

However, there really is nothing free of charge. Every rose has its thorns and a wooden pallet has its splinters, protruding nails and is heavy. Furthermore, it is hygroscopic (which means potential weight gain and lowered strength parameters), susceptible to fungi or mould development, as well as to mechanical damage which may result in frequent repairs. Wood gets dirty easily and is difficult to clean which sometimes may preclude further reuse. As a result, it may not turn out as economical as it appears with regard to only the purchase price.

If you transport, for example, building materials or machinery parts, the disadvantages of wooden pallets discussed above will not keep you awake at night. However, if you are interested in shipping food, plastic pallets may be your only choice.

Plastic pallets – made to last

The list of advantages of plastic pallets is worth paying attention to:

  • high resistance and durability – plastic is used for pallet production thanks to it’s resistance to the most aggressive of chemical substances (acids, alkalis) and also to mechanical damage – this allows the pallets to be used for many years;
  • continuous use – plastic pallets, which are easy to clean, are replaced instead of being repaired, and do not need to be specially pre-treated (heat treatment, fumigation);
  • easy recycling – damaged pallets can be 100% melted and used to produce new ones;
  • safety of use – no splinters, protruding nails;
  • low and constant weight, easy storage – plastic is lighter than wood, as well as easy to store – when folded and stockpiled in a heap, nestable pallets take up less space than the same number of wooden ones; it does not absorb moisture and thus does not increase in weight.

Plastic pallets and containers are particularly predominant in the food industry where resistance to dirt and to reaction with various organic substances is particularly important.

But you have to pay for each of these properties. It makes a plastic pallet a few times more expensive than similar sized wooden one. A damaged plastic pallet is practically useless as it is not repairable. The cost of making customized plastic pallets is disproportionally high compared to the price of non-standard wooden pallets.

Wood in retreat

In the not too distant future, plastic pallets will squeeze out the wooden competition. This will be due to rising prices of wood, potential new ecological regulations (e.g. within the EU), and most probably due to the  economic viability. This applies mainly, in our opinion, to the Polish market, as wooden pallets have been in retreat for a long time in western Europe. Wooden pallets will continue to be traded as long as there is a supply of cheap wood. When will this change? The answer goes far beyond the scope of packaging and forwarding.