Transport Packaging: Cheaper and Better Plastic

"If plastic pallets are so much better than wood, why doesn't everyone switch?"

I recently had a call from a couple guys at a New York financial investment firm. My heart started palpitating because I thought they were about to offer me an advance on my kiss-and-tell exposè of the material handling industry.

Turns out (and this I had to surmise from what they wouldn't or couldn't tell me) they have a client considering getting into the plastic pallet business.

When I said, "Enjoy the circus," it gave them pause. And when they asked for only a minute of my time I knew I was in for a 30-minute interrogation. For the sake of research (and I needed some fun that day) I decided to listen to their questions, many of which I have been answering since the last century.

Here's one of my favorites: "If plastic pallets are so much better than wood, why doesn't everyone switch?"

Those queries can only come from people living far outside the material handling and transport packaging galaxies. My answer to that one has gotten shorter over the years. I now say, "Follow the money." New Yorkers like short, quick answers.

When they began to understand that pallets are assets, they asked, "Why don't plastic pallet users track them with RFID?" My answer to that is stolen from Ralph Rupert, researcher at Virginia Tech, "Why put a license plate on a car in a demolition derby?"

They usually follow with the rhetorical, "Well, why doesn't someone invent something [meaning plastic] cheaper and better?" This is where I divert the proceedings with a response, "That's on the assumption that cheaper is better?"

However, the idea of something better, or at least different, is intriguing. Given the high cost of fuel and resin, and everincreasing uses for plastic, much is happening. While it's doubtful that these plasticbased alternatives will be cheaper, it's a good bet that they will be better.

Any application of alternative materials in the transport-packaging arena will take awhile. Corn-based products in particular have shown a lot of promise, if not a lot of progress. The science term for the new cornpone is polylactic acid, or PLA, the biopolymer originating with corn sugar fermentation. When new things made from this material become commercially viable, they'll make it to the transport packaging market. Folks south of the Mason-Dixon line have long been fermenting corn to make commercially viable alternative products.

Meanwhile, DuPont (Wilmington, Del.) recently introduced a new biopolymer called Sorona, currently being used in carpet fiber, that offers promise for the industrial market. Dow Chemical (Midland, Mich.) and Cargill (Minneapolis, www.cargill.com) have been doing a lot of experimentation and work together, creating biopolymer things such as new road surfaces that make highways safer. In September, Global Bio-Chem Technology Group brought on-line a new Chinese plant that will process cornstarch into 20 kinds of plastic.

Why all the corn talk? It takes eight metric tonnes of crude oil to make one tonne of polyol (the type of alcohol that's used to make polyurethane and other chemicals), or one and three quarters tonnes of corn to make the same amount of polyol. That's not chicken feed.

So, when I'm asked the question, "What's being done?" I'm usually safe in saying. "Plenty."

Eventually, the investment-types got around to asking, hesitatingly, as if they're embarrassed, "Well, just how big is the plastic pallet and container business?" And I was reminded of my four-year-old grandson asking me, "How high is up?"

Clyde Witt has been reporting on transport packaging issues and trends for more than 20 years.

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