Which pallet is right for you?

Two experts weigh in on wood, plastic and other issues pertaining to protecting produce.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a produce-related business surviving without using pallets.

Pallets are how fruits and vegetables make their way from the farms to supermarkets, and produce executives have lots of options when it comes to choosing the right pallets for their needs.

“Pallets are the core platform that allow for the distribution of fruits and vegetables that are moved through the supply chain,” says Tim Debus, president and chief executive of the Reusable Packaging Association, based in Tampa, FL.

The Association promotes the interests of reusable transport packaging products and services, and Debus says pallets are perfect for reuse.

“Clearly, when you’re looking at transport packaging, pallets are very representative of the types of products that we advocate in a system of reuse,” Debus says. “That’s the key; we focus on the reusability of these pallet platforms within a system that achieves the performance, cost savings and, of course, offers a lower environmental footprint in its use.”

One of the key decisions a company needs to make is what kind of pallets to use. And the two most popular options are wood and plastic.

Annette Ferri, vice president of communications for the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, headquartered in Alexandria, VA, notes that two billion wooden pallets are used in the United States on a daily basis, and that 90 percent of all products move around the U.S. on wooden pallets.

When it comes to environmental benefits, Ferri points out there are significant, negative environmental and economic implications of moving from wood. Shifting to plastic will increase the use of fossil fuel-based materials and carbon emissions. And it will increase the impact on landfills.

“Alternate materials would also disrupt supply chain and logistics procedures in ways that could put worker safety at risk if untested packaging options are mandated on our nation’s infrastructure,” she says.

Debus says both wooden and plastic are effective in terms of reusability, which is more about the system pallets are used in, as opposed to the material type.

“To have the effective systems in place to be able to recover pallets and repair and refurbish as needed — and to put them back into use effectively for your customers — that’s the key to the reuse system,” he says. “Whether it’s plastic, whether it’s wood, whether it’s aluminum, what’s really involved with reuse is the system approach with which you operate the use of that pallet.”

A key benefit of a reuse system is product protection and efficiency throughout the transportation process.

“When you’re looking at fruits and vegetables, you’ve got a level of perishability involved, and pallets are providing the protection of the [shipment], being able to safeguard it as it moves through a very rigorous supply chain, and can withstand temperatures and a lot of warehouse distribution moves,” says Debus. “They really provide high performance for those touch points within fresh produce.”

Technological Advances

Factors beyond material that produce retailers should consider when investing in pallets include new technology that identifies products and monitors conditions through the shopping process.

“You can capture the temperature that the pallet is being moved throughout the whole journey,” says Debus. “You can put in a device that measures the shock and vibration so that you determine if the product was handled effectively throughout, or whether there was an incident that involved a rough handling of the goods.”

There also have been advances in tracking technology.

“RFID [radio-frequency identification], as applied to pallets, has been around, but now you’re seeing investigation of how you can connect a pallet to the internet and have that pallet send you a signal, identifying through GPS, exactly where it’s located and map it out on an almost real-time basis,” says Debus. “When you have innovation, not only in the design and size, clearly there’s great innovation in terms of technology in terms of monitoring conditions and providing the real-time location of the particular product.

A Variety Of Sizes

The business world is undergoing great changes, and produce is no exception. More people are doing their grocery shopping at home, placing orders through apps on their phone and waiting for their goods to be delivered.

“As the supply chain environment evolves to meet customer needs, you’re also looking at different changes in how fruits and vegetables are being delivered to the customers,” says Debus.

He notes ecommerce and digital ordering with direct delivery to homes is resulting in more varieties of transport packaging, including pallet size.

“We’re seeing great, tremendous growth, not just in fruits and vegetables at the retail store, but in drop-offs and pickups at the store as a physical location, and in online ordering in which the store, perhaps, serves as a distribution center for households,” he says. “So you’re not going to use a full 48-by-40 pallet in those types of home deliveries. Half pallets provide a different footprint that could allow for the retailer to be able to expand how they’re delivering their products to their customer.”

He adds that more innovations regarding pallets will be introduced in order to fulfill the needs of the changing retailer delivery structure.

“It’s a good time in the pallet marketplace, because we’re seeing technology and innovation, not just in the material type but also in the technology that can be applied to that product,” says Debus.

To gain more insight, we talked with these two experts about wood and plastic pallets, and other innovations:

Produce Business: Why are wooden pallets necessary when there are other options available?

Ferri: Wooden pallets are an environmental, economic, trade and efficiency success story. They have many benefits, and that is why they make up the largest share of pallets. Companies try alternative materials all the time — but wood continues to win as, more than any other suggested alternative, wooden pallets are: recyclable, renewable, cost-efficient, durable, safe for workers using them and environmentally sustainable.

Produce Business: What are the benefits of using wooden pallets?

Ferri: In addition to being environmentally friendly, wooden pallets have economic benefits. The industry contributes $31 billion and more than 173,000 jobs to the U.S. economy. Wood packaging also enables healthy forests and markets.

Produce Business: What leads to a supermarket produce executive deciding to use plastic, wood or aluminum pallets?

Debus: Ultimately, the retail supply chain experience is looking to get the highest quality, the freshest product, to their customers and do so effectively within their operations. What you want to do is look for the platform that’s going to allow it to work effectively through the system to be able to deliver that quality and the freshness in terms of how packaging the units work together. It really varies in terms of what the needs of the commodity are. For example, bananas need to go through a ripening process. Others need to be temperature-sensitive. Strawberries need to be kept at a low temperature. There are a wide variety of usage requirements for fresh produce, so you want to look for a pallet that’s going to be able to work across your operations, or your needs.

Produce Business: Are any new materials being used to make pallets?

Debus: We’re certainly finding great innovation in the material types that can be used for pallets. There are some pallets on the marketplace that are (made of) composite materials, a blend or mix of different types of material, including sand, that can be formed and composited to create the pallet.

That’s one of the great things that we’re seeing — with research and development and technology, we’re looking at different types of materials. Material science continues to be a rapidly growing field, and it can demonstrate how you can make products that are stronger and lighter and have better performance characteristics.”

Produce Business: How does pricing work?

Debus: There are a variety of models, of course. You have suppliers who are designing and manufacturing pallets to both sell to a retailer, for example, and that may be used in their own operation. You have companies that are involved in the pooling of pallets. Those companies actually own the assets, and they’re leasing them out, mostly to the grower/shipper and allowing that pallet to go through the retail system.

Produce Business: What’s being done to control invasive species?

Ferri: There is currently an international treaty and standard in place that works and protects against invasive species. It’s called ISPM 15 (International Standards For Phytosanitary Measures No. 15) and is a proven success story. It works to protect our forests and facilitates safe trade. Since its implementation in 2005, we know of no other large-scale establishments of wood-boring insects.

The invasive species many reference — emerald ash borer and Asian long-horned beetle — were introduced before the successful ISPM 15 program was launched. Over 180 countries have now adopted the regulation. The global partnerships in place are working together to protect forests.

We support the goals of ISPM 15 to safeguard the forests and urban trees around the world from the spread of non-native invasive species.