Lights, Camera, Pallets!

Fire, pestilence, poison and pests. Who says pallets aren't exciting?

The clash between wood and plastic in the pallet industry has every element of a doomsday action flick — fire, pestilence, poison, swarms of locusts…Ok, no locusts. But creepy-looking insects make a cameo.

Opening scene: fire. The Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA), CHEP and several wood pallet suppliers join forces to oppose a fire marshals bulletin, which they see as an attempt to impose dramatic, unnecessary regulations on ubiquitous composite-wood pallets. (For the full story, see our April 2009 issue.)

The plastic pallet industry, represented most vocally by plastic-pallet pooler iGPS, eagerly extols the safety of plastic pallets while highlighting the dangers of wood. NWPCA fires back, publishing an industry alert about the fire retardant deca-bromine that iGPS uses in its pallets. The warning message, adorned with skull and crossbones, calls plastic pallets toxic.

No thriller is complete without some conspiracy theories. A parallel story line shows iGPS CEO Bob Moore blaming “unscrupulous members of the wood pallet monopoly” for intentionally spreading misinformation. The wood pallet industry is threatened by increased adoption of plastic pallets, he charges.

Wood pallet supporters claim many iGPS executives are former CHEP employees with a grudge. Moore himself had been CEO of CHEP before founding iGPS, they point out. Wood warriors claim the fire marshals association seeks profit from new certification requirements and has political ties to the bromine industry. The fire marshal association denies the allegations.

Cut to scene: poison. The U.S. House passes the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. Shortly thereafter, iGPS writes to the FDA, urging it to investigate the dangers wood pallets pose to the nation's food supply. Moore tells the government urea formaldehyde in engineered wood is a “known carcinogen” that could contaminate food shipped on wood pallets. Moore also says the chemical used to fumigate wood pallets, methyl bromide, is “highly toxic.”

It sounds frightening, but fumigation of wood pallets is nothing new. An International Standard for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPM-15), finalized more than seven years ago and enforced in the United States since 2005, requires raw wood packaging material to be either heat treated or fumigated and marked as such before it can move across the border for import or export. The treaty that helped create the standard was signed by more than 100 countries as a way to control the artificial spread of invasive insect pests, the most infamous being the Asian longhorned beetle and emerald ash borer.

Cut to scene: bugs. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of the USDA, publishes a notice of proposed rulemaking for wood packaging material used in domestic commerce. iGPS takes aim at wood, using destruction of forests and agriculture as another reason to convert to plastic.

In the fine print, APHIS suggests that ISPM-15 be adopted for domestic commerce in addition to international. It also says pallet pooling, combined with ISPM-15 treatments, may be enough to mitigate the spread of destructive insects. APHIS actively seeks comments from the industry.

The film critic in me thinks the pallet debate is exciting, but my journalist self thinks we should cool the panic with some facts, like this one: No government agency or fire marshals association has publicly endorsed or rejected either pallet material.

And the concerned citizen in me thinks if the threat of fire and pestilence forces businesses to focus on public safety, health and environmental responsibility, it can't be all bad. If controversy gets us thinking about how to work toward the greater good, we could create our own box-office hit — complete with a happy ending.

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