What Is a Pallet? – Introduction to Pallet Usage

An introduction to pallets and pallet usage

Appreciated by few, even among those who use them, pallets literally “carry the world” in terms of moving goods through supply chains. This article aims to answer the question, “What is a pallet?” and provide an introduction to pallet usage by industry.

A Short History of Pallets

Pallets have emerged and continued to evolve over the last century, helping enable the development of modern logistics. The importance of pallets to supply chain applications today has been significant, allowing dramatic efficiencies in the handling and transport of unit loads. Additional refinements were added to pallet design and management during World War 2. For example, pallet reuse in the supply chain became increasingly practiced. The pallet pooling concept began to be seriously discussed during this time.

The Design of Pallets

A pallet is flat structure used as a base for the automated or manual handling of goods in the supply chain. It is used to store, protect and transport goods in the supply chain, while being handled by materials handling equipment such as forklifts, pallet jacks or conveyors, stored in racking or bulk storage, or transported in transport vehicles. The pallet is the most common base for the unit load, which includes pallet and goods stacked atop it, typically secured by stretch wrap, strapping, shrink wrap, adhesive, pallet collar, or other means of unit load stabilization.

Pallets are manufactured from a variety of materials. The wood pallet dominates the marketplace, but plastic pallets, paper pallets, composite pallets and metal pallets also have a presence.

Pallets include limited use or expendable pallets as well as reusable pallets. Reusable pallets can offer a lower pallet cost per trip, depending upon the cost of pallet retrieval.

Reusable pallet systems can involve fungible pallets as well as pallet management. Fungible pallets are of a common specification and which can be easily absorbed by the local or regional recycled pallet market for reuse after being emptied. Pallet management can take various forms, including self-management or 3rd party management. The latter can involve customized systems or pools, such as the Canadian Pallet Council (CPC), CHEP, and others.

Pallet sizes vary widely, dependent upon the intended application. Many standard pallet sizes exist for specific industries, pools or geographic regions. Standard sized pallets, such as the 48×40 inch pallet in North America, or the 800×1200 mm pallet in Europe, offer opportunities for pallet recycling, which extends the useful life of pallets.

In recent years, the pallet industry has been swept up in several negative marketing campaigns, including fire safety, greenwashing and pallet food safety. Pallet fire safety issue first emerged in the 1990s, when the fire safety issue was raised among competing plastic pallet suppliers. It later emerged in the 2000s when one plastic pallet provider argued that composite block wood pallets should be given a similar fire classification as plastic. Pallet greenwashing campaigns involved alternative product suppliers posturing to promote their offering as having less environmental impact. Additionally, pallet germwashing campaigns have likewise been waged, predominantly between one plastic pallet supplier and the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA).

Pallet trends include initiatives to take additional weight and material out of pallets without compromising performance, as well as auto-ID, notably the fixing of RFID tags on pallets. Additionally, pallet pooling companies are finding synergies by merging with reusable container providers (Brambles – CHEP and IFCO; Euro Pool System and LPR)  in order to broaden their complementary offerings.

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