Wood and plastic pallets are platforms for dispute
July 1, 2009
Pallets are a base for loads of goods. Now they’re the basis for a war.
The decision to use wood or plastic pallets has centered mainly on logistics: whether and how to persuade the goods receiver to send back and/or recycle the pallet. But now makers of wooden and plastic pallets are sniping directly at each other over issues of safety, primarily fire safety.
On one side is iGPS, for Intelligent Global Pooling Systems, an Orlando, Fla.-based company that markets all-plastic pallets with embedded radio frequency identification tags. On the other is the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA), an industry group of pallet recyclers.
The major focus of the dispute is fire safety. Each side accuses the other of using materials that either run the risk of fire in pallet storage areas, or suppress that risk in ways that bring other risks.
At issue for wooden pallets is the composite wood that many of them use for the blocks-the chunks of wood that separate the upper and lower decks. Composite wood is made from wood fragments and sawdust, and is held together with adhesives that often contain urea-formaldehyde, which is flammable. Spurred in part by two big pallet fires in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2007, the National Association of State Fire Marshals began reevaluating the fire risk of wooden pallets with composite blocks.
There’s more at stake than the actual risk of fire. If fire marshals rate the risk high enough, it could lead to insurance companies requiring either an expensive sprinkler system upgrade in pallet storage areas, or a surcharge in premiums.
The state fire marshals association had considered a proposal to upgrade the risk factor for wooden pallet storage. But in the face of opposition by NWPCA and others, the fire marshals backed away from that proposal in April and instead formed a working group to study the matter further.
NWPCA is firing back at plastic pallets. Its target is deca-bromine, a fire retardant often used in plastic pallets, which would otherwise have a higher risk of fire than wooden ones. NWPCA claims that deca-bromine is toxic, and has been found in American women’s breast milk at concentrations up to 50 times higher than in Europe.
NWPCA concedes that deca-bromine is encapsulated during the extrusion of plastic pallet materials, but claims it has potential to enter a plant environment under two circumstances: if pallets are doused with water during mass rinsing (hydrocooling) of fresh produce, or if they’re abraded by being dragged on a floor or otherwise damaged.
“Whenever you create dust from scuffing that [plastic] pallet, you’ve got 8% deca-bromine floating around, and people are breathing that,” says NWPCA president Bruce Scholnick.
Bob Moore, chief executive officer of iGPS (and a former CEO of CHEP, the largest reusable wood pallet supplier in America), responds that NWPCA is arguing in bad faith to try to stanch the decline in market share of wooden pallets.
“I don’t think this issue is about deca-bromine at all,” Moore says. “It’s about a diminishing and dying industry.” He adds that tests by an independent lab hired by iGPS showed no evidence of deca-bromine leaching during abrasion, and that tests by the Food and Drug Administration has shown that transfer of deca-bromine to product during hydrocooling is one-fifth of the FDA’s minimum.
National Wooden Pallet and Container Association