The Flexcon Guide to Plastic Pallets 

What if we told you that the history of plastic pallets goes back nearly 75 years? Or, even better, that these products are only about 20 years younger than the original wood shipping pallets? We tend to think of plastic materials as relatively new inventions. The origins of plastic pallets show that this assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Early mentions go as far back as 1947, and this sustainable shipping and logistics material has only gained in popularity since. But of course, plastic pallets are far from the norm in today’s shipping and warehousing industry. More than 90% of the pallets used are still made of wood. That’s why in this guide, we’ll dive deep into the nature of this flexible and sustainable product type. Let’s get started.

What is a Pallet?

We’ll begin with a formal definition. In the logistics industry, a pallet is a “flat structure that can support the transport and storage of products. It derives its name from medieval-times hard surface beds because of its similar function. The products to be transported or stored are stacked on the pallet, which can then be transported easily with a forklift or other equipment. The ANSI MH1-2016 standard provides a more formal definition. According to its guidebook, a pallet is: “A portable, horizontal, rigid, composite platform used as (a) base for assembling, storing, stacking, handling and transporting goods as a unit load; often equipped with (a) superstructure.” The superstructure, commonly a pallet sleeve, makes the materials and products stacked on the pallet easier to transport and store. 

Common Shapes and Sizes of Pallets

All pallets share a common shape. They have a flat hard surface with a base that allows for a forklift or other equipment to easily lift up the structure and its contents. Sizes tend to be standardized and available in the following common sizes (all measurements in inches): 

  • 40×48, commonly used for groceries and retail.
  • 42×42, commonly used for paint and telecommunications.
  • 48×40, commonly used for cement and military applications.
  • 48×42, commonly used for beverages and chemicals.
  • 40×40, commonly used for dairy products.
  • 48×45, commonly used for automotive parts.

Of course, none of these uses are inherently exclusive. The most important consideration is to work with the pallet size that makes the most sense and is the most commonly used size within your unique supply chains. For example, the most common shipping pallet in North America is 48×40 and about 6 inches deep.

3 Core Types of Pallets

While the basic concept is simple, there are a number of types of pallets you can buy. Common options and standards include:

  1. Block pallets can be accessed from all four sides. They can come with or without boards at the bottom to increase stability.
  2. Double-face pallets have flat surface areas at the top and the bottom. This design increases weight capacity and can make the pallet reversible in some cases.
  3. Solid deck pallets don’t have spaces between the planks that make up the surface. They’re easier to clean, and can better store and transport smaller items.

Within these standard types, of course, possibilities abound. Depending on the style and material, pallets can become more or less versatile while increasing or decreasing their weight limit.

Wood vs. Plastic Pallets: What You Need to Know About Materials

While wood pallets make up the majority of today’s market, plastic pallets are starting to make a strong case for superiority in their own right. Wooden pallets are relatively durable and come with a high weight capacity. They’re relatively easy to repair, and the high friction of the surface makes for an easy grip on any equipment used to move them in a warehouse or during shipping. However, wooden pallets also tend to be heavy, increasing the transport cost and logistics. Because the surface is porous, moisture, insects, and chemical substances can all damage the pallet over time.

On the other hand, plastic pallets are more durable and tend to have a longer product life. They’re also lighter and more resistant to some of the damage mentioned above. This improved durability becomes important when considering that once a plastic pallet breaks down, it becomes more expensive to repair. However, the nonporous surface makes it perfect for transporting groceries, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and other materials that could penetrate porous materials like wood. 

The Role of Pallets in the Supply Chain

Put simply, pallets are the unsung hero that keeps the supply chain moving. Demand is currently outpacing production for pallets, and for good reason. This is a product built for movement, and its ability to standardize any product shipment and storage is impossible to overstate. In the age of just-in-time warehousing and shipments, we no longer face large movements of product inventory that can last for weeks or months. The supply chain is constantly moving, and every minute of efficiency saved can add to a business’s bottom line. As the foundation of these shipments, pallets (whether they be plastic or wood) can standardize the logistics for everyone involved in the chain.

This standardization component is the key to success. By using the same pallets across the supply chain, individual members can better plan ahead. And because the size of the pallet doesn’t change depending on the size of the products it transports, processes can remain standardized and in place from one shipment to the next.

How to Label Your Plastic Pallets

Most often, pallets are used not in isolation but as a small part of a much larger logistics infrastructure. This means that proper labeling is essential to maintaining organization and effectively managing both the storage and shipment of goods.

You’re likely already familiar with pallet labeling standards. A few best practices for labeling include:

  • Follow Global Standard One (GS1) SSCC guidelines, which include adding unique product and company labels.
  • Keep the labels both unique and sequential to avoid rejected shipments due to repeated codes.
  • Place labels on the side of your products so they will not be obstructed, and will be visible when equipment like forklifts pick up the pallet.
  • Keep the label at least 50 millimeters away from vertical pallet edges to avoid any incidental damage to it.
  • Place the label on top of any container that might envelop the pallet, like shrink wrap.
  • Use high-quality printed labels to make the code easily machine-readable and to avoid delays.

The Question of Sustainability in Buying Pallets

In an age where sustainability has become a core business consideration, the environmental impact of pallets used for logistical operations has to be considered as well. More durable materials will result in less attrition, and less waste as a result. Consider, for example, the environmental impact reduced by using recycled instead of new pallets. Based on the EPA’s waste reduction model, which focuses on the differences in CO2 emissions between landfilling and CO2 emissions during the recycling process, using 10,000 recycled versus new pallets can result in:

  • 988 trees saved.
  • 207 tons of lumber diverted from landfills.
  • 300 fewer metric tons of CO2 emissions.
  • 63 passenger vehicles are being removed entirely from the road.

These numbers might be counterintuitive, but they make one thing very clear: plastic pallets can be more sustainable than wood pallets. Not only are they typically produced from recycled plastic, but these same plastics can be recycled again and used for other purposes. Instead of breaking down and needing to be replaced like wooden pallets, the life of plastic pallets can be near-infinite, significantly improving sustainability while also being recyclable.

Finding the Right Pallets for Your Business and Logistics

A helpful solution in the logistics process can actually make a major difference in how those logistics operate, including (but certainly not limited to) the sustainability of your operations. A well-managed pallet inventory, made up of products with the appropriate materials, will be well worth your time to research and implement. The process of improving your logistics may lead you to consider using plastic pallets, or you might prefer to stay with the more traditional wooden pallets instead. Either way, taking the time early to adequately research the topic can pay off big time, increasing efficiency and reducing waste down the road.