Plastic Pallets Still a Burning Issue

April 1, 2001
ProMat lit a fire under pallets and fire safety. Here's a look at how plastic pallets perform.

Plastic Pallets: Still a Burning Issue

Often, solving a big problem takes only a small spark of creativity.

Fire in the distribution center continues to be a burning concern for material handling professionals. More specifically, the added risk of having plastic pallets and containers in your warehouse and the subsequent increase in insurance premiums.

There are a number of inhibitors to adopting a returnable container program, and the anticipation of fire is certainly one. However, fire prevention is an area where a lot of progress is being made. I feel that the increased cost (in terms of fire insurance premiums) because of plastic products in the warehouse will soon be a thing of the past.

Certainly the folks responsible for sprinkler technology are doing their part, as are responsible people within our industry. The Reusable Plastic Container and Pallet Association (RPCPA), a product section of Material Handling Industry, has an informative brochure loaded with fire protection resources. The brochure tells you, at a glance, precisely what you need to know and whom to contact. For a copy of this brochure, call RPCPA at 704-676-1190.

At ProMat 2001, Chuck Gandy of TVA Fire & Life Safety Inc. made one of the better presentations I’ve heard on the subject of fire in the warehouse. During the session on creating a returnable container program, rather than just relying on straight, clear facts, Gandy used a low-key approach, laced with scare tactics to gain and hold the audience’s attention. There’s nothing like a little video of a fire that looks a lot like it’s in your building to give one pause. It’s amazing how quickly a blaze can spread — and how quickly an adequate sprinkler system can knock down a fire.

What constitutes a fire hazard is determined by a large number of factors. As you would expect, how quickly material can ignite, along with its flammability, plus the amount and rate of heat released by the burning material, are high on the list. When we start talking about fires where plastic pallets and containers are involved, smoke production, toxicity and spread of flames exacerbate the situation.

Although Gandy said there was only one plastic pallet with Underwriters Laboratory (UL) approval (those made from GE Plastics’ new material), I discovered a new company, barely a year old, producing - and, importantly, selling — a pallet made of polyvinyl chloride, a fire-retardant material that also has UL approval.

PolyOne Corp. is producing the Geo-Pal, the beauty of which is that it will not burn, unlike most combustible material, once the source of heat or flame is removed. The element of chlorine provides no fuel for the fire and will, in fact, inhibit combustion.

During a rare slow moment at the company’s booth at ProMat, Dave Taylor, senior manager at PolyOne, gave me some quick lessons in chemistry and physics. Then he got down to how his product is making a run at the material now used in an estimated 97 percent of the pallets in the marketplace — wood.

With an estimated 1.8 billion pallets in service in the U.S., you can understand why a lot of people are chasing the leader. The Geo-Pal does all the things the other plastic guys do, but offers more. It offers fire retardancy, and better (meaning less) creep and slip resistance than high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Because of lower tooling costs, custom sizes and colors are less expensive than with HDPE. And, says Taylor, flexural strength of vinyl is comparable to dense hardwoods and more than twice that of HDPE.

This whole discussion of plastic pallets can sometimes get too technical. The words of caution here are, as T.S. Elliott once observed: "Where is the wisdom? Lost in the knowledge." Let’s not get lost. Let’s get smart.

Clyde E. Witt

executive editor

[email protected]

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