The Arduous Life of a Pallet: Part I

Pallets, neatly stacked in Mexico City. Photo by: Addie Broyles. 

Pallets, neatly stacked in Mexico City. Photo by: Addie Broyles. 

Most people laugh when they find out I’d like to interview them about pallets. “Why would you ever want to talk about those?”

Well, why wouldn’t I?

It seems to me that the pallet is the neglected sibling of the shipping container. Sure, most people probably don’t think about shipping containers that often, save a few tight-knit circles or food/techie/globalism nerds, but books like Marc Levinson’s “The Box” and Rose George’s “Ninety Percent of Everything” have cracked open the enormity and wonder of global containerization for lay audiences.

No such romantic stories exist for the pallet, even though the pallet and the shipping container are two inventions that are functionally intertwined. Together, the pallet and the container have facilitated our global diet. Mangoes from Morocco adorn froyo in New York any time of year. Salmon can be caught in Alaska, deboned in China and sold in Texas. Tomatoes and spinach are accessible all year round, everyday. The pallet and the shipping container let all this movement of food happen, and quickly.

Why? Because before the pallet there was break bulk shipping. In other words, human beings used to have to load and unload every individual piece of cargo by hand into and out of a ship’s hull. With a pallet and a shipping container, a human can lift and move with a forklift in a matter of moments what would have taken hours to move in the days of break bulk shipping.

Roughly 50 years after containerization and palletization were introduced, there are now more than 2 billion pallets in use at any time in the United States alone. You can hardly touch anything that hasn’t also touched a pallet. Yet, unlike shipping containers, knowledge about the pallet seems asymmetrical or difficult to quantify. The iterations of pallets, it turns out, vary as widely as the industries that rely upon them and the types of loads the pallets must haul. The life and burden of a pallet is at once everyday and uncommon; at once familiar and mysterious.

In three parts, I’ll explore the pallet in various stages of all its (un)glorious labor.

Let’s start in the lab.  

A pallet, discarded on the sidewalk in Cambridge, MA. Photo by: Hannah Walters. 

A pallet, discarded on the sidewalk in Cambridge, MA. Photo by: Hannah Walters. 

Putting the Labor in Laboratory.

You can almost literally say pallets are a dime a dozen. About 2 million new pallets are made each year, and unless they are highly customized or made of steel, they run for about $5 each.

While their prodigious numbers and low cost might indicate how frequently pallets are used — and thus how critical they are to the global economy — pallet sizes aren’t standardized. There are a few common dimensions for pallets, but there are thousands of different forms pallets might actually take.  

The majority of pallets, as you might have noticed, are made of wood. Yet there are other materials often used, like plastic or even steel. What material you use depends on the weight of your load as well as fuel prices. Food pallets are typically wood or plastic. In either case, they must be sterilized so as not to transport pests to new destinations or contaminate edible cargo.

How do pallets take shape? In the lab.

Many universities with engineering and supply chain programs have some form of a pallet lab. Virginia Tech is one of those schools. Within the university’s Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design, you’ll find the William Sardo Pallet Lab, with testing equipment like: the Vertical Linear/Random Vibration Table, Incline Impact Tester, Swing Arm Drop Tester, and, of course, the Lansmont Squizer. The lab even has an environmental chamber where researchers test how factors such as humidity affect pallets.

College students and academics preside over these machines, calculating, testing and retesting to optimize for one or a few out of five interwoven pallet parameters: Strength, Stiffness, Durability, Functionality and Purchase Price.

From infancy, pallets are given no mercy. They are vetted for a burdensome destiny: pallets convey goods across land, sea and air. They are jammed against each other in shipping containers, balanced on forklifts, slid onto conveyor belts and stacked upon warehouse shelves by men and women who consider them disposable.  

In Part II: The Warehouse, I’ll look at who exactly owns a pallet, and why having your pallet model all wrong can cause a massive (and expensive) headache.