Materials Handling

Wood or plastic?

By Mark Nicholson

March 2021

An impartial pallet buyers’ guide

Pick up any materials handling or logistics magazine today and you’re likely to see articles and advertisements comparing the pros and cons of plastic and wooden pallets. For the most unbiased view possible, Eureka’s Mark Nicholson has been speaking to a company that manufactures, sells and equally promotes both kinds.

“Our profit margins on plastic and wood are fairly similar, so we have no vested interest in steering buyers one way or the other,” says Chris Shawyer, General Manager at Southampton-based Associated Pallets. “The best pallet for each of them depends on their exact application. Most people already know what type they want. If they’re not sure, our advisers will ask detailed questions about how the pallets are to be used and will then make a recommendation.”

He continues: “We tend to get more requests for wooden pallets, mainly because they are much cheaper than plastic, but price shouldn’t be the only consideration. Both materials have advantages and disadvantages which have to be weighed up. In some cases, the right choice is obvious; in others, customers must decide which factors are most important to them.”

With advice from Associated Pallets, we have put together the following comparison of plastic and wooden pallet properties. We then present a simple checklist aimed at matching these to the needs of common applications.

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Both wooden and plastic pallets come in a wide variety of designs, specified for load-bearing needs ranging from light to very heavy.

Pallet properties

Cleanliness and hygiene

For situations where pallets need to be thoroughly washed, plastic has the advantage thanks to its non-porous material – which also shrugs off spillages and odours. Wood can be cleaned, with care, but its absorbency is an issue. It can be structurally weakened by water and contaminated by absorption of spilled liquids. Nevertheless, wood is still suitable for most hygienic industries, like food, but plastic takes over where extreme cleanliness is needed. It also looks neat and clean.

Regulatory compliance

There is a long list of countries, including the EU as a block, which require all wooden pallets and wooden packaging entering them to meet ‘ISPM 15’ regulations. This is to prevent the spread of diseases and pests. To comply, they must be heat-treated and officially stamped. Plastic pallets are exempt from these requirements, as their material cannot be infested by microbes, moulds and insects.


Under normal circumstances, plastic pallets will have a much longer lifespan than wooden. Their material is hardwearing and resistant to accidental damage. Heavy knocks may weaken and distort a wooden pallet’s structure, while plastic pallets are more likely to absorb shocks and bounce back into shape. However, when damage occurs, wooden pallets are much easier to repair, while damaged plastic pallets may have to be scrapped.

Impacts on wooden pallets may result in loose nails, splinters and sharp pieces of broken wood which can damage or contaminate goods and injure people. On a smaller scale, rubbing, scratching and banging of wooden surfaces during everyday handling can be enough to release dust and small wood fragments. These may be a problem in sensitive workspaces.

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Whether standard or customised, pallets cost much less with wood. Plastic has advantages where rigorous washing or disinfection are needed.

Wooden pallets stored outdoors may be damaged by wet or damp conditions, which don’t affect plastic. In most climates, plastic is more weatherproof – but note that extreme heat may deform it and extreme cold may make it brittle.

Weight and strength

Whatever their material, pallets must be specified for the maximum load they will carry. They come in a variety of designs, including versions for very heavy loads in both materials. Plastic pallets give added stability, as their strength is more evenly spread across their whole structure.

At comparable capacities, plastic pallets are significantly lighter than wooden. This reduces fuel-related transport costs. Space-saving, nestable plastic pallet design options can save further on fuel, as they reduce the number of vehicle journeys needed for delivery and retrieval of empty pallets.


Plastic pallets are more precisely consistent in their dimensions and weight, and their shape is less likely to change over time. This may be important where accurate load calculations are essential, or where pallets are used in automated handling systems with low tolerance for variation. However, wooden pallets can meet these needs if they are properly constructed, maintained and handled.

When empty pallets are piled high to optimise use of storage space, consistently sized and shaped plastic units may create more stable stacks. To minimise the risk of slippage, they can be designed with grooved, non-slip surfaces. Wooden pallets offer natural friction due to their rougher material. Nesting plastic pallets are the most efficient of all for storage.

Comparing purchase prices is easy, but your final choice will depend on what application the pallet is being used for.


Wooden pallets are relatively easy to custom-design to the user’s specifications on capacity, size, handling methods and other factors. Customised plastic pallets are less commonly available and can be very expensive.


Sustainability arguments around plastic and wooden pallets become quite complex, but most people agree that wood is the greener choice. For a start, plastic comes from a non-renewable resource. Wood is not only renewable but has a negative carbon footprint, as trees lock away CO2. Timber from sustainably managed forests is particularly good, environmentally, and in any case pallet manufacture tends to use leftover wood which would otherwise be wasted.

Wood and plastic can be recycled in different ways. Plastic may be melted down, processed into pellets and used in the manufacture of other products. Even if those new items are themselves recyclable, there will ultimately be a time when the plastic is disposed of as non-biodegradable waste. By contrast, wood will eventually biodegrade and return its nutrients to the earth’s natural cycles. In the meantime, it may be reused in other wooden constructions or broken down into useful materials like mulch and sawdust.

Plastic pallet manufacturing and recycling tends to be more energy-intensive and carbon-producing. On the other hand, plastic’s longer life means fewer replacement pallets need to be manufactured over the long term. Meanwhile, its weight reduction advantages can lower transport-related pollution.

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Damaged or worn-out plastic pallets can be recycled, although wood is usually considered more eco-friendly. Plastic’s environmental positives relate to long service life and lighter weight.


Although the purchase price is considerably higher for plastic pallets, it may be outweighed by their ongoing economic advantages – depending on your application. Consider, for instance, their longer life, lower transport costs, easier cleaning and ISPM 15 exemption.

Price shouldn’t be the only consideration.

Some key questions

What is your market? Some sectors typically use one material or the other, so sticking to the norm can avoid complication.

What is your load size and weight? For most purposes, you should find suitable pallets in both materials.

Will your pallets be returned? If you’re not going to see them again, choose wooden pallets – ideally secondhand.

How clean do they need to be? Products are almost always safely packaged, so they don’t come into direct contact with the pallet. However, some food and pharmaceutical environments are so sensitive that only plastic is acceptable.

How far are they travelling? For air freight, in particular, plastic’s lighter weight reduces cost. Plastic pallets’ uniformity is also helpful. In long-distance, high-volume road haulage, they lower fuel costs through lightness and efficient use of space.

Are you exporting? Wooden pallets travelling to some countries need to be heat-treated and certified to ISPM 15 standards. There is no such requirement for movements between EU nations (except for exports from Portugal). As of 1st January 2021, all wooden pallets moved from Britain to the EU must comply with ISPM 15. Using plastic pallets avoids this complication.

Will they be handled automatically? Before buying pallets for use with automated transport, handling or storage systems, ask the equipment’s supplier about pallet specifications. If wooden pallets are to be used and reused within the system, you or your pallet supplier must ensure they are well maintained and of good quality. Alternatively, use plastic.

Do you need a bespoke size or design? In most cases wooden pallets will be the best choice.

Will the pallets be on display? Plastic may give a better impression, although new wooden pallets also look good.

How important is sustainability to your customers? You can make
a good green argument for either material, but it’s probably easier with wood.

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Chris Shawyer, General Manager, Associated Pallets

Chris Shawyer concludes:
“If you find that plastic and wood can equally meet your operational needs, the next thing to think about is their relative cost. Comparing purchase prices is easy, but your final choice will depend on what application the pallet is being used for. Consider, for example, the value of the goods being loaded onto it, and whether the pallet is going to be reused. 

“If you’re shipping out low-cost goods, and if you will never see the pallet again, then wooden pallets may be your best option. But if your application is for food, and if the pallet needs to be kept clean or to be reused time and time again, then plastic pallets may be best. ISPM 15 regulations may also be a factor: wooden pallets must be heat-treated, but plastic pallets are exempt. Lightweight nestable plastic pallets have become a popular choice in that situation.”

In summary, there’s no easy answer to the question of whether plastic or wood is best. Every business has different circumstances and should come to its own conclusion based on the facts. We hope you will find Eureka and Associated Pallets’ even-handed guidance useful.

For further information, visit Associated Pallets’ general website
at and its plastic pallets site at