Each year, roughly 80 million wood pallets are sold for export in the United States. Now a little black and white beetle may single-handedly spark a worldwide pallet revolution that could boost the popularity of plastics.
So why all the fuss over one little insect? That beetle, the Asian longhorn beetle—along with at least 40 other species of wood-boring insects—posts a huge environmental threat. The insect lays eggs in holes that it bores in tree trunks. When those eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the wood and can eventually kill the tree.
Those insects had not existed in the United States until the mid-1990s, when they began showing up in New York and Chicago. Thousands of trees had to be destroyed as a result.
The insects are believed to have traveled to the United States inside solid wood packing material from China, and have since been intercepted at ports and found in warehouses throughout the United States and other countries.
To prevent infestations elsewhere, more than 130 countries around the world have adopted the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) standards requiring that all wood pallets presented for import bear certification that they were either heat treated to a core temperature of 132 degrees for at least 30 minutes or fumigated with methyl bromide to prevent infestation. Pallets that have not been treated or do not carry the proper certification markings can be embargoed, turned away or destroyed—along with their contents—at the port of entry. Other options include unloading and crossdocking the product at the port of entry while the pallet is treated on site; an act that will carry high fees.
The regulations, called the International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures (or ISPM-15) also affect the many cross-border shipments of food and related items between the United States, Mexico and Canada, as all three countries adopted the standards in September. Many of the countries to which U.S. companies ship the $51.3 billion in food exports a year, and from which U.S. retailers receive the $48.7 billion in food imports a year, are also among those that have adopted the standards (See the list on page 36).
In response to those standards, a number of pallet manufacturers have just started to ramp up production and marketing of a whole new class of plastic export pallets that are exempt from ISPM-15. Even Orlando-based CHEP, whose reputation is based on its signature blue wood pallets, offers a line if plastic export pallets. “We are ready to go to market, and once demand is there, we can ramp up,” says Per Ohstrom, the company’s director of marketing. “Fumigation requirements might increase the demand for plastic.”
These new plastic pallet types are pricing out at half the cost of traditional plastic pallets, causing international shippers to at least give plastics a second look.
Prices for plastic export pallets start at $12. They are more expensive than wood pallets, even those that have been treated, but, for shippers who cannot afford to have product delayed at borders or in port, there is a lot more at stake than money.
“Plastic costs a little bit more [than wood], but you can sleep at night because you know your products are going through,” says Curt Most, national pallet sales manager at Orbis Corp., Oconomowoc, WI, which offers three plastic export pallet lines.
“If there was a way to guarantee that a shipment on wood pallets would get through, there’s no reason to pay $10 more for a plastic export pallet,” admits Jerry Koefelda, director of new business development at Rehrig Pacific, based in Los Angeles. “But, there are so many different regulations for each country and even different ports within those countries, and different levels of documentation that you have to have.”
Adds J.D. Coult, business development manager at Rehrig, “With just one hiccup because of a wood pallet, plastic pallets will more than have paid for themselves.”
To keep costs down, most plastic pallets for export are made of recycled composite materials. This also keeps the weight down. Some plastic export pallets weigh as little as 10 pounds, though most average about 15 pounds.
Rehrig’s RPX 4840 export pallet weighs 17 pounds and boasts a dynamic load rating of at least 2,500 pounds. The lightest Orbis export pallet weighs just 10 pounds, but some of its other models can support loads of 10,000 pounds. PDQ Plastics, Bayonne, NJ, offers models that weigh in at 13-23 pounds. All of them are made to Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) specifications, meaning that they have standard 48-inch-by-40-inch shipping platforms and offer four-way access by forklifts and hand trucks.
“The nature of the majority of applications requires that it be inexpensive enough to provide value to the supply chain even though it may only be used once,” explains Rehrig’s Koufelda. “Yet, at the same time, it must be substantial enough to provide the level of protection and convenience that any of a multitude of transport modes and conditions requires.”
“This impressive strength-to-weight ratio is important in the export market due to weight limitations on shipments,” says J.P. Michaud, sales manager of Rehrig’s Material Handling Business Group. “Some exporters who use 50-pound-plus wood pallets face the dilemma of weighing out before they cube out a shipping container. This means they reach the weight limit before they can fill the container with product. Using export pallets, they could ship about 700 more pounds of product per container.”
Plastic export pallets may also drive real savings for those that ship by air freight “because you’re charged by both weight and distance, and these are lighter in weight than wood,” he says.
Plastic export pallets, for the most part, are designed as one-way pallets. “It is not designed to stand up to daily abuse and multiple trips,” says Bill Bloch, manager of global logistics at Rehrig. But, there are exceptions to this rule.
“There probably are some short-distance loops within the USA where the export pallet could be used multiple times if the forklift operators use care and are properly trained,” he says.
“There are companies looking to get multiple uses from these pallets, especially those shipping lighter loads,” adds Koufelda. “If the shipper has the ability through its supply chain to get the pallets back, it is certainly possible to reuse this pallet.”
Hartson Poland, vice president and general manager of PDQ Plastics, agrees. “With export pallets, a certain amount of reuse will occur because it can be used by the receiver. Companies that are doing the exporting may pass on some of the costs to the receiver, knowing full well that he will be getting a reusable asset on his end. As the processes develop, you’re likely to start seeing more closed-loop systems between suppliers and shippers,” he says.
These pallets should not be confused with the plastic pallets that are widely used in the grocery industry as slave pallets within warehouses and in closed-loop systems. With some exceptions, most plastic export pallets are nestable, and therefore, cannot be supported by most warehouse racking systems.
The fact that they are nestable, while adding to the versatility of the pallets, also may be a detractor to their more widespread use. “With nestable plastic, because there is no bottom deck, you could have crushing issues,” says pallet expert Stewart Richardson, a Canadian sales representative for Shuert Industries, Detroit, and a pallet consultant with PACTS (Pallet and Container) Management Inc., based in Ontario, Canada. “A lot of shippers might buy a nestable pallet if it works with what they are shipping, for products that are light or do not have to be double-stacked. If they’re being double- or triple-stacked in a shipping container, they could work well, but you have to be mindful of the potential for products on the bottom of the stack to be crushed.”
As is always the case when discussing plastic pallets, there are many detractors who feel it is hard to justify the increased cost, especially for pallets that are most likely only going to be used once.
Treating wood pallets has so far only added about $1 to the cost of wood pallets, and the pallets only have to be treated once. They have to be retreated when they are reconditioned and put back into circulation, according to Bruce Scholnick, president and CEO of the National Wood Pallet and Container Association, based in Alexandria, VA.
“I can buy a reconditioned, treated wood pallet for about $5 and give that away,” says Dave Sandoval, president of BUS Systems, Spring Grove, IL, a supply chain and pallet management consulting service. “Where this could really become an issue is if countries start saying that they will not receive wood at all any more because of the risk.