So you want the truth? In my best “Jack” voice, “Are you sure you can you handle the truth?” Good, I’m glad we got that off our chests, because this is a topic, like so many, ultimately fueled by money. I ask you to keep an open mind, and let me start off being straight regarding my point of view as one of the owners of a pallet manufacturing company. Our company has, for nearly 30 years now, dealt almost exclusively with wooden pallets. Only recently have we worked on a very small scale with plastic pallets.

My brother and I are accustomed to pondering over plastic vs. wood pallets like most people ponder over paper or plastic bags in line at your grocery store. Which one is better? Which one is “greener?” Which one is the future? After spending several hours of every week focused on coming up with the strategy of our company’s path forward in an ever-challenging marketplace, the answers to the question of which one is better, plastic or wood pallets, crates, dunnage, still deserve serious consideration to say the least. You may be surprised about the conclusions that have been reached regarding these materials used in packaging for several decades now. Decide for yourselves! We certainly have – hey, what did you expect, we’re in the business of pallets.

When it comes to making a decision on which is better for your organization – plastic vs. wood packaging – there are important categories that invoke specific questions. The big four are always:

1) Fire Safety
2) Sustainability
3) Strength/Flexibility/Practicality
4) Cost/Price

Let’s take these on one shall we?

1. Fire Safety

This has been in the news some lately as there has been some back and forth between supporters on both sides of the issue, and of course the fire marshals are caught in the middle along with not just pallet companies but also all the companies around the world that store large amounts of packaging in warehouses. One’s first reaction is typically that wood is flammable afterall we use it to start fires and stay warm in our homes, out camping, and even create pellets to use as fuel for wood-burning furnaces.

Surprisingly, the Arson Bureau of the New York State Fire and Prevention and Control conducted a nonscientific test to compare the burn rates of plastic and wood pallets. Their findings indicated that “once ignited the plastic pallets burned both quicker and hotter than wooden pallets. Burning, dripping plastic from the plastic pallets pooled and burned on the floor under the pallets contributing to the growth of the fire. The sprinkler system was not effective in extinguishing this fire, necessitating use of a hand held 1 3/4 inch fire suppression line for final extinguishment.”

While a wooden pallet maintains a baseline National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) fire rating, a plastic pallet requires a one-class upgrade from the NFPA. If the plastic pallet is reinforced polypropylene or polyethylene it requires a two-class upgrade in comparison to a wooden pallet. This brings us to what’s been reported about lately in industry news.

Some plastic pallet manufacturing companies have taken measures to lower the class of fire hazard of their pallets by incorporating fire retardant chemical(s) in their pallets. The chemical used by one of the largest producers of plastic pallets is deca-bromine. From the life-cycle analysisΒ  pallet company in Jacksonville of the largest plastic pallet provider in the United States illustrates that up to 3.4 lbs of deca-bromine can be infused into a plastic pallet in order to provide an even fire hazard classification with a wooden pallet. There have also been concerns with fruits and vegetable potentially becoming contaminated through a process known as hydro cooling. Hydro cooling employs plastic pallets being submerged in water along with the fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, the FDA has not approved plastic pallets for this process. There is a safety letter posted at written by an officer of the Food & Drug Adminstration (FDA) regarding this issue. This is a very real and recent issue – April 2009. Maine and Washington have already outlawed deca-bromine’s use, and ten others are instituting a ban on the chemical (Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Vermont).

2. Sustainability

So are you ready for more truth? Which is the greener alternative? Can we dispel myths on both sides regarding wood pallets as well as plastic pallets and arrive at some logical conclusions together?

Sustainability is where the plastic pallet flexes its muscles as being the green alternative to wooden pallets. Wooden pallets require harvesting trees and can typically weigh more than plastic pallets costing more to freight and leaving a larger “footprint” on the environment? Is that true? Plastic pallets are 100% recyclable? How do we navigate through these green waters? For years my brother and I thought surely plastic pallets are the future and that our days in working with only wooden pallets are numbered, and these type of claims fueled those thoughts along.

Wooden pallets are almost exclusively built from the unusable/byproduct of the lumber industry that is geared towards housing, furniture, and flooring though, and many of the trees are renewable (grow back over and over again to keep providing raw material) and others are replanted over and over to keep the industry “fed.” Plastic pallets are at the end of a manufacturing chain beginning at an oil well, through refineries, oil tankers, trucks, and finally plastic processing plants – of which the top 47 ranked highest in carcinogenic emissions by the EPA, 35 are plastic production companies. Typically, plastics are not associated with being sustainable or green. Paper or plastic folks? Which do you choose? Gut check time.

The EPA has typically associated wooden pallets as being a sustainable product. At the end of the “life” of a wooden pallet it can easily be ground into mulch, wood flooring, stove pellets, or replacement parts for other pallets. Even the nails are recuperated from the grinding process and sold for scrap metal. The fact is that wooden pallets are from a truly renewable source = trees! We clearly have been reading about how finite the supply of oil is everywhere in the world.

Another aspect of sustainability that we don’t often hear about is the fact that wooden pallets are repairable – and it’s a profitable endeavor so it’s an industry that’s commonly engaged in by companies looking to lowering their scrap/waste costs as well as pallet recyclers looking for cores to recycle and put back into the market.

To end the subject of sustainability – again I always return to the plastic bag – what do we find in our landfills folks? Plastics – they last, and the resin used in plastic pallets does not biodegrade. While plastic pallets can be recycled, the reality is that it is a process that requires considerable energy to run extruders to produce other products from recycling pallets and also building the plastic pallets is considerable. Sadly, most plastic pallets, like our plastic bags, water bottles, etc. end up in our landfills.