The Secret Life of Wooden Pallets

If you’ve ever been in a grocery store, you’ve probably seen a wooden pallet or two lying around. These sturdy squares of slatted wood are the workhorses of the shipping industry. Companies use pallets to transport everything from cantaloupes to computers.

Though they might look unremarkable, pallets have a far more interesting history than you might imagine. They are also the current subject of a heated debate, as select companies come up with new ways to distribute pallets throughout the world. Ways that might seriously interfere with the livelihoods of smaller businesses.


In this blog, we’ll explore the secret life of pallets and how the market is shifting around them today.

Where Pallets Got Their Start
Pallets were invented around the same time as the forklift. Although rudimentary versions may have existed earlier, pallets and forklifts are inseparable tools and you won’t see one without the other. As the forklift was developed, pallets first accompanied it in the form of skids.

Skids
Skids were proto-pallets made of wood or metal. Some of them even had iron legs. However, it quickly became apparent that things like iron legs were clunky and unsustainable, so they were replaced by sets of wooden beams called “stringers.”

Stringers
Although “stringers” was the name for the wooden beams that supported a pallet, it is also the current name of many pallets you see today. Most light wood pallets you see in stores are “stringer pallets,” which means they have three vertical beams of wood in between the top and bottom deck boards.

The stringer pallet form was finalized in 1925, and not much about it has changed since then. Pallets were practically perfect right from the start, and innovation didn’t seem necessary.

World War II
Stringer pallets became especially prevalent during World War II when the military used them to ship equipment and rations all over the world. Prior to the war, pallets competed with various other carrying methods. After the war, pallets took over almost completely.

Recycling
As pallets grew more omnipresent, people began to notice a lot of extra pallet waste. Once products reached their destinations, shippers discarded their pallets. These piles of pallets would end up in landfills, on roadways, or in the backs of stores.

Innovators soon realized they could easily scoop up broken and used pallets, repair them, and sell them back to manufacturers at a profit. This recycling practice continues to this day, with recyclers paying a few dollars for pallets, fixing them, and selling them back to shippers for a couple dollars more than they paid.

How Pallets Have Changed in Recent Years
Although the pallet form seems perfect, people have tried to improve upon it. Most notably by creating block pallets.

Block Pallets
Unlike stringer pallets, block pallets use blocks of wood between the deck boards instead of beams. This style makes the pallets stronger and enables forklifts to take hold of them from any side. (Stringer pallets only allow entry from two sides.) Block pallets were originally created by a company called CHEP.

How Block Pallets Changed the Industry
Block pallets, created by CHEP, initially fell prey to the same problems as other pallet “innovations.” Sure, they were better. But they were also more expensive. Shippers needed cheap more than they needed fancy. Regular stringer pallets worked perfectly well already.

CHEP got around buyer reluctance by starting to rent pallets instead of sell them.

Pallet Rentals
CHEP rents its pallets to shippers for a fee and then collects the pallets again at the end of their journey. To distinguish their pallets from others, CHEP paints them bright blue, with “Property of CHEP” inscribed in white.

Pallet Reclamation
Although CHEP’s rental industry took off in a big way, there has been some controversy over its reclamation practices. Many of CHEP’s pallets inevitably get lost in the shuffle and are picked up by pallet recyclers.

Recyclers generally buy pallets by the truckload, and therefore don’t get to pick and choose which pallets to buy and which to leave. It often happens that recyclers accidentally purchase CHEP pallets. To reclaim these losses, CHEP has instituted an aggressive asset retrieval team. They pay recyclers a set amount to reclaim their pallets, and have a history of taking to court recyclers who refuse to comply.

Recycler’s Complaints
Many pallet recyclers have claimed that CHEP’s practices are extortionary. Unhappy recyclers filed a class action lawsuit against CHEP in 2008, which claimed the company was violating anti-trust law by passing its operational costs onto small pallet recyclers.

CHEP won its case, although the controversy rages on as to whether CHEP’s reclamation practices are fair and ethical.

Which Pallets Are Better
Stringer pallets still hold a large share of the market industry. These pallets also tend to be produced and recycled by small businesses across the nation.

Although block pallets have become increasingly prominent, it remains to be seen how the market will evolve whether companies like CHEP will hold onto their popularity.

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