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Some Shippers Look for Wood Alternatives to Handle Exports
Phytosanitary rules steer some shippers to materials other than wood.

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 11/17/2004

With all the challenges caused by emerging international plant health standards, some shippers have turned to wood alternatives to satisfy global transport needs. And if a customer doesnít want wood, there may be a number of options for them to consider. As a pallet solutions provider, knowing what is out there can help you secure your relationship and offer solutions.

Many providers of alternatives to wood are more than willing to work with a typical wood pallet company. Some wood pallet companies have even teamed up with alternative material partners to offer a full line of products. For example, the Nelson Co., Baltimore, Md., has become one of a few licensed distributors of the Cabka plastic pallet line. Nelson claims the Cabka pallets are comparable in price to a new wood pallet. Cabka pallets are injection molded using proprietary technology and waste plastic.

Nelson targets the export market with the Cabka 4840 AC nestable pallet. Prices start in the $8-10 range and go up depending on the desired design. The 4840 AC weighs 16 lbs, making it ideal for air cargo. It can hold 1,250 lbs (Dynamic) and 3,000 lbs (Static). Cabka offers a complete catalog of designs.

Currently, Cabka pallets are molded in Europe and Israel and shipped to North America. Cabka pallets are made from a blend of polyethylene and polypropylene, which gives better performance characteristics compared to most other plastic pallets. "Our key advantage is in the material," said Rich Reiher, national sales manager for Nelson Co.

Nelson has been marketing these pallets for nine months and has found good applications in the automotive, food, textile and electronic industries. The biggest driver is the desire to have no worry shipping said Rich. Customers are afraid of having their load stopped or delayed at the border if they ship on wood. In the past, plastics were never price competitive enough with wood to make one-way use a viable option. But Rich said that Cabkaís technology allows it to be cost competitive where most other plastic pallets are not. Nelson has found its partnership with Cabka to be win-win for both companies.

Not All Pallets Are Created Equal

Picking the right pallet falls somewhere between rocket science and adding complex fractions. You canít just read the marketing language and assume a pallet will work. Testing a pallet design is always a good idea before going ahead with full scale implementation.

Hartson Poland, general manager of PDQ Plastics, said, "We have had to be more forensic lately about loads and how they are going to be configured because sometimes a customer will tell you that they are putting 2,000 lbs. on a pallet. Then you find out that it is a 2,000 lb. u-shaped product where none of the weight is on the pallet legs. And when the pallet is delivered, it fails under load."


You canít just assume that a pallet rated for 2,000 lbs will work. Is the load one big unit or bundled together? How is the weight of the load concentrated? The load configuration must be considered when designing a pallet solution.

PDQ Plastics distributes the SKIDMARX pallet, which is a low cost pallet designed for use in export situations. Hartson admitted that the pallet works well as long as the load is uniformly spread across the pallet and the load itself adds some stiffness. But concentrated loads tend to give these pallets problems. The lower cost plastic pallets that are typically used for one-way shipments are cheaper because they are not as robust as some designs with more plastic in them. These designs are not rackable and have no steel reinforcement.

If you take cost out of a plastic pallet, it does not matter if the design is unable to handle the load. When looking at plastic, always keep in mind the load and intended use of the pallet.

One answer for someone looking to use plastic but cannot find a ready-made solution is to use pallets made out of plastic lumber. Plastic Pallet & Container, Cincinnati, Ohio, makes custom sizes available for low cost because there is no tooling or molding cost associated with pallets using plastic lumber.


The A-Typical Wood Pallet

If the idea of selling plastic to your customers turns your stomach, then maybe you could introduce them to wood fiber-based pallets. Litco International, Vienna, Ohio manufactures the Inca pallet, which is made from pre and post consumer wood waste.

"For over 15 years, we have been selling for shipments to Australia and New Zealand," said Gary Sharon, Litco vice president. "When ISPM-15 becomes more widely implemented, I think that we will see significant increase in demand."

Molded under high heat and pressure, the Inca pallet removes any need for heat treatment or fumigation. It does not need to be stamped or certified either. "Itís ready to go," said Gary. Inca pallets tend to be more rigid and price competitive compared to plastic. Compared to corrugated, Inca pallets are water resistant and can be stored outside.

"The Inca pallet has similar performance to a plywood pallet but at a much lower cost," said Gary. Inca pallets can be purchased in truckload quantities for $6.50 per pallet.

Litco is the only licensee of the Werzalit process in North America. Its unique technology allows Litco to manufacture a very specialized solution.

"We are interested in attracting pallet companies as partners. Inca pallets are available for distribution," said Gary.

Inca pallets come in all major standard sizes. The typical Inca pallet can carry 2,000 lbs. (Dynamic) and 20,000 lbs, (Static).

Litco has some new pallet in the works with some major innovations. It has a new 45x45 square design, which will fit well in standard sea containers. Shipping air is expensive, and this new size allows shippers to maximize use in a 40 foot container. Litco has also pioneered the "Ultimate Plastic Pallet," a design which combines the strengths of wood fiber and poly propylene. It is stiffer like wood but impact resistance like plastic according to Litco.


Advancing into the new wave of pallet management, Litco even offers custom rental programs for customers desiring those services.

Corrugated Offers Maximum Flexibility

If you need a specialized design or size, corrugated pallets can offer the maximum flexibility at the lowest cost. Plastic and wood fiber products can have significant tooling and mold costs for anything other than standard options. Corrugated can be quickly customized to meet very specialized needs.

One of the most durable corrugated pallet designs on the market has been the Unipal pallet, which is made from corrugated lumber and resembles a wood pallet in many ways. Many corrugated pallets are made from two sheets of corrugated with blocks in the middle. But Unipal uses corrugated lumber giving the pallet interlocking beam strength in both directions. It can carry a much heavier load than most typical corrugated pallets. Products do not have to be unitized to work well with the Unipal design.

Stan Lee has been behind the Unipal pallet for years. He recently sold his business, Corrugated Pallet Corp., to Mondi Packaging, a world class European paper and packaging company. Stan said, "A large corporation can make things happen very fast." And Mondi Packaging has helped catapult Unipalís global presence. Stan has stayed on as a consultant and new business developer.

Unipal has done some fairly innovative custom work for clients in the past. One design glued trays on top of the pallet. Another had 4 corner posts to help secure barrels on pallets. Another unique design had holes in the top deck where objects were nested inside the pallet. "Plastic is limited in its customization due to the cost of tooling," said Stan.


"The greatest advantage that we have over wood pallets is that we are dry and clean," said Stan. Plus, corrugated is lightweight (1/3 weight of wood) and has no nails. Stan said that Unipal pallets are price competitive to new wood pallets.

Corrugated material is readily available all over the world, which makes it not as dependent on soaring raw material prices. On the back end, waste paper is a sought after commodity in most countries, which makes disposal easy.

Mondi Packaging is currently looking for new licensees in the United States. Unipal pallets are made by licensees using proprietary technology and designs. A typical Unipal line costs around $400,000 and can make about a million pallets per year with minimal staff.

Corrugated pallets may not work for every export application, especially those where the load may stay outside for any significant period of time. Stan said, "One of the disadvantages of corrugated pallets is that they canít be stored outside." Corrugated pallets can be dipped to help preserve them. Generally, a minimal amount of moisture is not a problem as long as the load is not sitting in standing water.

Stan said that wood pallets are still king and should retain 75-80% of the marketplace. He added the only thing that may change that is if someone develops a composite that can be produced to compete on price and performance with wood.

In general, Stan commented that "many people are waiting until the last minute to comply (with new phytosanitary standards)."

There are other corrugated options besides Unipal. Corrugated Pallets Inc., Kitchener, Onatrio, manufactures corrugated pallets using very solid runners instead of blocks. The runners have hardboard similar to Mdf laminated in the middle. This special design makes the pallets rackable.

Ben Kane of Corrugated Pallets, said that Eastman Chemical uses its pallet to ship drums of chemicals and has not had any problems with it.


Corrugated Pallets calls its product the SureStackerô pallet. The patented components for the SureStackerô corrugated pallet are manufactured by Corrugated Pallets and are sold to packaging companies and packaging users by its network of exclusive assemblers. Wood pallet companies can become part of the network and buy SureStacker components and assemble the finished pallet on site. Corrugated Pallets ships anywhere in a two day radius of Toronto. It has customers as far south as Tennessee.


On average SureStacker pallets weigh 19 lbs. and have no nails. As with all corrugated pallets, the SureStacker design does not need to be heated treated or marked.†Ben said, "The phytosanitary issue is forcing the change. It is forcing companies to look to alternatives."

Export Focused Packaging Providers

Some packaging companies have even sprung up to focus primarily on export markets. Brian Pigott, general manager of One-Way Solutions, said his company started in 2002 to serve the export market with low cost plastic pallets.

One-Way Solutions sells pallets as low as $9.95 each for high volume orders while most of its line cost $14-15 per pallet. Brian admitted that wood is cheaper, but his product is attractive for other reasons.

"If youíre just looking for one-way export use, our pallets reduce the headaches of getting documentation, have no nails, are hygienic and can be washed," said Brian. Plastic helps eliminate worries and headaches that could result if inspectors for some reason decide to hold up a wood pallet even if the shipper thinks the packaging is compliant with international regulations.

"Bigger companies take longer to think through their decision," said Brian. But some major shippers are taking a serious look at plastic options. "I expect demand to pick up exponentially as international standards start to get more widely implemented."

One-Way Solutions does work with wood pallet companies seeking to service clients with plastic packaging. There are a number of other companies offering plastic pallets for export. Some of them could not be reached for comment. For example, Granville Composite Products, Montreal, Quebec markets the Globalizer plastic pallet series. Granville pallets feature lightweight and durable designs using its Thermokinetic Molding process.

Finding the Right Option For Your Customer

Most of the plastic pallets being used for export are nestable with no real racking strength. These more lightweight designs keep costs down, making plastic more economical for one-way shipments.

There are a number of market forces currently impacting various alternative pallets. Just as wood has seen higher raw material prices, plastic and metal have been impacted too. No matter what pallet your customer uses over the next year, it will likely be more expensive than in the past.

"Even recycled plastic right now is at a premium, we are looking at a 70% increase over a year ago," said Hartson of PDQ Plastics.

This piece has just scratched the surface of what is out there. Staying well informed is important to effectively service your customer. From corrugated to plastic to wood fiber, options abound for those customers demanding something other than wood. Many of these options allow you to preserve your business relationship and stay in the loop.

Basic Web searches can help you identify possible leads. But the best way to learn is to pick up the phone and call some of the vendors. You may even end up like The Nelson Co., which found a strategic new business partner in Cabka North America.

As globalization increases, opportunities to partner with international firms may exist for a limited time as these companies seek to develop their network. Once up and running, it may be harder to join any of these partnerships since sales territories may already be assigned in your area. Of course, there is always a risk with any new business venture. You have to decide if there is enough gold in the future for you to dig in these emerging markets.

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