Another reason plastic pallet manufacturers say their product is superior is because it's free of cross-contamination issues. Wood, they claim, is a breeding ground for E. coli, salmonella, wisteria and other dangerous bacteria.
"Plastic is better than wood in situations dealing with food processing, because the possibility for bacterial growth is ruled out," says Rehrig Pacific's Coult. "Bacteria doesn't linger on plastic because it's not absorbent like wood is."
"One of our big produce customers converted from wood to the iGPS plastic pallet," says Rex Lowe, president of iGPS Co. LLC, a plastic pallet pooling company out of Orlando, FL. "It used to have to swab all its wooden pallets to prevent cross contamination and it became tired of having to reject almost half of its pallet loads."
He adds that since iGPS tracks its pallets, the company knows exactly where they've been-and what they've held. Certain companies that manufacture flour or sugar will not take pallets that have held raw meat or peanut products, because flour and sugar are highly absorbent materials and might absorb whatever residue is left on a pallet.
"When a wooden pallet arrives that has no history on it, you don't know what it's been carrying before it comes to your plant," says Rex. In addition to tracking the history of its pallets, iGPS also cleans them thoroughly after each turn.
Steel, Aluminum Pallets
"What we found in the marketplace is that companies are looking for something easy to clean and maintain," notes Brent Theiling, executive general manager for LM Containers, a manufacturer of aluminum pallets located in Hayti, MO.
"Aluminum is a perfect material for cleanliness and sanitation."
Theiling says aluminum can be used to create pallets resistant to rust. This makes them perfect in food preparation applications, where pallets need to be washed down with chemicals or high pressure hoses.
The durability of aluminum pallets also pays off during facility inspections. Health and OSHA inspectors won't find cracked or shattered pallets, loose nails or other hazards associated with plain wood pallets. The pallets have no sharp edges, are extremely durable and do not use mechanical fasteners-they are assembled using robotic welding processes.
Steel pallets are likewise durable. "We recently simulated pooled pallets moving from Wal-Mart to SC Johnson for a period of 18 months," says Don Polver, vice president and general manager for Worthington Steelpac, York, PA,
"We were trying to simulate as many turns as we could to see what kind of damage we were getting."
He says Worthington's pallets averaged a damage rate of six percent, as opposed to 25 to 30 percent, which he says is the damage rate for wood pallets.
The company was also able to get 52 turns on the steel pallets-a simulated four to five years' worth of usage-and sturdier pallets mean more products arrive at their destination undisturbed and uncontaminated.
According to LM and Worthington, pallet contamination is not an issue when aluminum or steel pallets are utilized, as neither can absorb liquids or cleaners.
"That's a huge advantage when you place pallets in a freezer where water or blood and guts might fall onto them. If the pallets were wood, those things would freeze right onto them," explains Theiling. "It's not a problem with aluminum."
In addition, thanks to their solid nature, neither steel nor aluminum can be infested with harmful boring insects that can contaminate food product.
"Also, there's no way of telling if you have wood chips or sawdust in your food product," says Worthington's Polver.
"However, you can detect if there's any kind of metal, as most production systems have metal detectors in them. We see a huge opportunity to help solve contamination issues through the use of our pallets."