Sealey Forklift

So, you’ve made your goods and you are ready to ship them. You may think that it’s a simple matter to use any old pallet or crate and send them off. In fact nowadays packaging is not that simple.

Packaging regulations and customer requirements now frequently demand specialist attention, both in the UK and abroad.

If you are in the food or pharmaceutical business your customers will be looking very closely at the health and safety of the packaging you use. Pallets may carry diseases including E Coli. This leads to demands for treated hygienic plastic pallets and boxes, or at least heat treated wooden ones. And when you begin to export, the challenges are greater still.

International Packaging Regulations

Wooden packaging
Wooden pallets (also packing crates, drums etc.) dominate the worldwide market. Growing trees sustainably for pallet making is environmentally responsible. Wooden pallets get 8 trips on average before being repaired or broken up. The broken ones can form part of new pallets or be recycled into chipboard, biomass or garden mulch.

The International Plant Protection Committee (IPPC) has a regulation about the phytosanitary standard for wood packaging, known as ISPM15. The purpose of this is to restrict the spread of wood-borne pests such as Pine Wood Nematode and Asian Longhorn Beetle. These can be found in untreated packaging.

Anyone exporting to countries outside the EU should abide by ISPM15 and insist that their pallets and creates carry its unique stamp: although not all countries have adopted the standard, it is an increasing trend and the costs of a Customs rejection or local treatment of the packaging can be very severe.

Treatment can take the form of Heat Treatment (coded HT) or Fumigation by methyl bromide (MB): however MB has been banned in the EU since March 2010 so in practice, heat treatment is the method to choose.

However, life is rarely that simple and you should get professional help from your freight forwarders on what local regulations are at any given time. For example, Australia has brought in a requirement to treat a particular pest that means that UK exporters are recommended to get their pallets etc. kiln-dried to <20% moisture in addition to heat treatment, and add the KD code. And in Portugal, there is a nematode risk so exporters and importers are recommended to adopt ISPM15 for this country.

The advice to users of pallets is to use a Timber Packaging & Pallet Confederation (TIMCON) member, registered with the Forestry Commission.

Exempt from the regulation are manufactured wood by-products such as fibreboard (plywood), orientated strand board (OSB) and chipboard. Plastic and metal pallets are also exempt.

The heavier 4-way entry pallets are longer-lasting than simple 2-way ones: 4-way pallets are often supplied by rental/return networks such as Chep, whose blue-painted pallets may be seen all around Europe. They maintain the quality of recycled pallets and are often specified by end users.

Plastic packaging
These pallets and boxes are long-lasting, stackable and can easily be made hygienic. Some are made from recycled PET drinks bottles. There are heavy-duty versions for racking use, and lightweight ones that are ideal for airfreight. APME administers a European plastic pallet re-use scheme.

The disadvantage is the cost, up to 10 times the price of wooden pallets. They are also fire hazards, being easily to catch light and emitting dangerous toxins.

Metal packaging
This comprises pallets for specialist uses, including the military, automotive and tyre industries. They represent less than 1% of the market.

Standard steel pallets are strong but expensive and heavy, and they rust over time. Aluminium ones are also strong but lighter, and are good for airfreight. Stainless steel pallets are used for clean room applications. Both are 2 to 3 times the price of regular steel.

Pallet sizes

There is no universal standard, much to the annoyance of freight forwarders and shippers, but there are 6 recognised ISO sizes:

1016 x 1219 mm (40” x 48”) North America
1000 x 1200 mm Europe, Asia (in practice very similar to the North American one)
1165 x 1165 mm Australia (it fits their trains)
1067 x 1067 mm (42” x 42”) Worldwide
1100 x 1100 mm (43” x 43”) Asia
800 x 1200 mm Europe (the best-known ‘Europallet’ size, designed to go through a standard door)

The other recognised size in North America is the widely-used American Grocery Manufacturers’ Association (GMA) 50” x 48”partial 4-way pallet.

Professional assistance

Your freight forwarder may well be able to help you with arranging various aspects of packaging, which can include the selection of pallet type and size, palletising goods, creating and filling crates, ensuring compliance with export regulations and expert packaging (a specialist job in itself but one which pays back in terms of avoiding damage en route and rejections at the port of receipt).

Don’t be tempted to skimp on this very important function or your business may suffer.