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Shipping Management: Pallets and Bugs: Back to the Future

July 1, 2005
The warning is, if improperly marked or unmarked pallets are received at ports of entry, the pallets and the goods on them can be destroyed.

Like the shepherd boy who kept crying wolf, I'm back to warn of impending international legislation that will impact pallet selection for many international shippers.

It seems every time I sound this warning the only folks I manage to arouse are the environmentalists. And they call to say, "See, I told ya so!"

Here we go again with the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) standard known as ISPM-15. The United States and Mexico will implement the standard on September 16, ready or not. Honest, this time they're for real—which is what I said the last time and the time before that.

But cut the folks at IPPC a bit of slack here. They're dealing with 113 nations, all of which must implement new rules. It's a tricky business these international standards, primarily because it takes so long to determine whose ox is being gored.

Here's some background on ISPM-15 and what it means to anyone shipping products in or on hardwood or softwood packaging material to any of the 113 participating nations. ISPM-15 came into our lexicon in 2002 after the Asian longhorned beetle began wreaking havoc with our forests. We, in turn, were sending our pine wood nematodes to other countries. It became a classic struggle of whose bug was bigger or which could eat more. The only way out appeared either total elimination of wood packaging material crossing international borders, or process the wood to be sure all the beasties were dead by the time the pallets and boxes reached their intended destinations.

Trying to decide how to kill these little creatures, and how to inform custom officials (in 113 countries, remember) that the packaging material is safe has been a bureaucratic nightmare. Even how to use the little anti-bug logo brought lawyers to the surface and stopped the implementation process in its tracks.

In a nutshell (nuts are not covered by ISPM-15) here's what you need to know. The shipper is responsible for shipping on wood pallets properly treated, marked with country of origin, type of treatment and the registration number of the approved wood processor. All of this information is to be stamped on the side of the pallet.

Currently, the regulation provides two ways to treat the pallets: fumigate with methyl bromide or heat the wood to a core temperature of 56 C for 30 minutes. And here's the speed bump we're about to hit. The harmful effects of methyl bromide have been known for years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a complete phase-out of methyl bromide that was supposed to be in place the first of this year, but looks like it won't happen until 2007. It's nasty stuff that kills not only bugs, it does an admirable job on the ozone as well. So why is it still listed as one of the two treatment options? I foresee some bureaucrat spotting this obvious conflict and implementation of the standard will go back on the shelf, again.

Meanwhile, customs authorities are talking tough. Given the warming global and political climates, I would not recommend calling anyone's bluff. The warning is, if improperly or unmarked pallets are received at ports of entry, the pallets and the goods on them can be destroyed.

There are alternatives to this hassle. Metal, plastic, engineered wood and various combinations to name a few. The Plus PS pallet, another alternative, recently hit the street, brought to us by Chep, a company that knows global logistics. Chep has operations in 42 countries and manages an asset base of more than 265 million pallets and containers.

I talked with Per Ohstrom, director of marketing at Chep (Orlando), who says his company has worked on offering an environmentally safe heattreated pallet since phytosanitary legislation started down the pike years ago. The percentage of the two billion pallets operating in the U.S. logistics stream that actually make border crossings is relatively small; an estimated two to five percent tops, says Ohstrom.

"Many pallets in international shipments are oneway units and are discarded after use," he says. "As a pooling company, however, we want to offer our international customers the option of the benefits of pooling along with a way to be in compliance."

For U.S. shippers, the greatest movement of goods on pallets across an international border is with Mexico. Canada is exempt from ISPM-15 compliance with U.S. trade because of the shared 3,145 wooded miles dividing the two countries. It's assumed the bugs will figure out an easier way of sneaking across than by riding in pallets. This argument does not work for the 2,000-mile border with Mexico because of our diverse environments.

Whether you seek an alternative pallet material or use a third-party provider, the best advice from the experts is to act as if implementation will happen in September. Get your international shipments, particularly those going to and from Mexico, into compliance and don't worry. Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite.

Clyde E. Witt

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