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plastic containers
Materials: Pallet firms push global ops
Simeon Goldstein, Packaging News, 03 February 2010
 
While half a billion pallets are in circulation in Europe annually, firms in the sector are reporting staggering potential for growth in worldwide markets, says Simeon Goldstein
 
 
Anyone who has travelled overseas in the past year will have noticed that the pound is not what it used to be. While a croissant on the Croisette in Cannes has become more expensive for us Brits, those UK businesses that do, or want to do, business overseas have found themselves more competitive on price.
 
Of course, the debate on the environmental impact of shipping empty primary packs to manufacturing bases in other countries continues apace. But, whatever the arguments, demand for the pallets and crates that ship those packs - or indeed any other products - remains strong.
 
"There are currently 500 million EUR1 pallets in circulation, with 70 million added annually," says Paul Davidson, UK and Ireland chief executive of Epal, the European Pallet Association. "Most of these are made and used within Europe, but the Epal system is expanding worldwide." To help boost this expansion, Epal wants to persuade shipping firms to palletise more of the goods loaded into containers.
 
Pump up the volume
Shipping giant Maersk says it aims for a 17-year life for its containers, although many do not last this long due to wear and tear. But, whether the container is brand new or has been around the world a few times, the important business consideration is product volume. "There's no minimum limit to the amount of cargo we ship, but we like as much as possible to make it a profitable sailing," says a Maersk spokeswoman.
 
While containers can be loaded to saturate them with product, Epal is pushing palletisation of product before it goes into containers as a way to reduce product loss and damage and minimise the risks involved in manual loading.
 
Epal-funded research into the 17.7m 20-foot containers that were shipped from Asia to Europe in 2007 found that the increased logistics costs from palletisation were recoverable in savings made when it came to handling product at the point of delivery, particularly in the case of high-value, heavy products. "If just 10% of the traffic was palletised, we estimate that nearly 40 million pallets annually would flow from Asia to Europe," says Epal's Davidson.
 
However, a major concern in shipping pallets, and other wooden packaging outside of Europe, is the need to comply with ISPM 15 legislation. ISPM 15 certifies that threats to forests, in the form of pests, have been removed from the wood prior to export. Failure to comply can lead to product being impounded or delayed in passing through customs.
 
Risk assessment
It is an issue that has led plastic pallet manufacturers to promote their own products, which are not subject to the legislation, to exporters. Jim Hardisty, managing director of Goplasticpallets.com, recognises that plastic pallets can be more expensive than timber ones, but says it is not a lot more compared to the potential risk of a product being impounded. "We have correspondence with people who underestimate, or don't fully understand the implications for shipping pallets, especially those companies setting out," he says. "People are generally not exporting low-value products, so I don't see why you would run the risk [of your product being impounded]."
 
While plastic pallets cannot carry the same load as wooden ones, Hardisty suggests that they are perhaps even more appropriate for airfreight. "A lot of incoming airfreight for things such as agricultural products and flowers are choosing plastic pallets because of the weight," he says. "If a product is important enough to air freight, people don't want it being seized because of legislation on the pallet."
 
The Timber Packaging and Pallet Confederation (Timcon) maintains, however, that the longevity and the environmental benefits of wooden pallets more than outweigh any negatives that might surround ISPM 15. "People might say that you use energy [to heat the pallets to kill pests], but it's less than to produce plastics. Wooden pallets can also be recycled," says Timcon president John Dye. If handled carefully, they also have a long shelf life - there are pallets being used that have been in circulation since the 1950s. "We're also reconditioning as many pallets as we can," says Dye. "And when it does become uneconomical, or dangerous from a health and safety perspective, we can do something practical and burn them for energy."
 
There are even wooden pallets that are not subject to the ISPM 15 legislation. The Inka presswood pallet is made from waste wood that is washed, crushed and coated in resin. It is then pressed and bound into shape to ensure it is water resistant. "The intensity of the process eliminates the need to meet ISPM 15," says Mark Kenyon, managing director of Cheshire-based Clingfoil, which is a regional distributor for the Inka pallet.
 
Tough customer
Kenyon says that the presswood pallet has traditionally been popular with the food industry, but also firms in the pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals sectors. It has a rounded edge and lip that means that less film is required to wrap the palletted goods and they are also very strong. "You can drive a forklift truck into one of the legs and not affect its stability," says Kenyon.
 
The pallets can be stacked inside each other to halve the amount of storage space they take up in the warehouse and improve the transport of unloaded pallets. One of the biggest plus points from the manufacturing process is the low moisture content that makes it ideal for long journeys in warm climates. "When a pallet crosses the equator you can get a massive amount of condensation that can affect the product. You don't get that with an Inka one," says Kenyon.
 
It seems then, there is a format to suit every shipment, by air or sea or land, and product category. Given the UK's taste for imported goods the inward market seems set to remain solid; exports, meanwhile, will keep the UK pallet sector busy for some time to come.
 
 
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