Building the better plastic pallet: EnvirOPak
Last summer, we launched the pallet and packaging newsletter, a monthly e-mail that focuses on wooden, plastic, metal and alternative-material pallets and end of the line packaging such as returnable plastic containers, slip sheets, stretch wrap and strapping.
It seems like an odd topic for a magazine that also tries to keep up with the latest developments in materials handling automation and technologies. It’s a little like Car & Driver doing a monthly focus on trailer hitches and roof racks – it doesn’t get much more basic than pallets.
But you know what? Pallet articles have historically been among the best read articles in the magazine and that continues online with the pallet newsletter. It’s one of those facts that befuddles us, but my simple explanation is that no matter how sophisticated and automated the facility, almost every manufacturing plant and most distribution centers that still ship in truckload quantities have to use pallets.
And while a pallet is about as basic as a meat cleaver, and maybe as subtle, there are plenty of innovators and tinkerers out there trying to build the better pallet. Finding them has been one of the fun parts of the last year. Some of these ideas will fail; some will work in niche applications; and just maybe, some will be a hit. Either way, I’m enjoying the work.
That’s a long way of getting around to the conversation I had yesterday with Jack Trickett, president of EnvirOpak and the creator of the Slip-Tray pallet, something Trickett describes as an environmentally sensitive wood-free packaging system.
Now, I’d never heard of EnvirOpak, even though the company has been around for about 20 years and Trickett told me he has sold well over a million of the pallets to the likes of Bridgestone/Firestone, Goodyear, Continental, H.J. Heinz, and Bush Bros., the baked beans manufacturer. Those manufacturers all have one thing in common: they use the system as an alternative to wooden pallets to ship bulk bags. Some shipments weigh up to 15,000 lbs.
The company’s focus on a niche area – distribution of bulk products, especially in the rubber industry - is one reason I probably never heard of EnvirOpak. The company’s scale is another. “We frankly haven’t had enough sales people to take care of our customers and expand our sales so we could grow faster,” Trickett says, this despite the fact that the global nature of the rubber business means he’s very much an international company.
The high concentration of customers in the rubber industry is a reflection of Trickett’s first career; back in the 80’s, he purchased rubber for Firestone Tire before the Akron-based company was purchased by Bridgestone. Back then, the rubber industry was trying to find a way to get rid of wooden pallets. Trickett began to work on the project as part of his job. When Bridgestone moved to Nashville, he left the company and the project.
He revived some of the ideas he had been toying with later, after he had a conversation about plastic slip sheets with a friend in charge of logistics for Goodyear’s Central and South American operations. Trickett came up with the idea of taking a slip sheet, flipping it back on itself and forming a tray. “We cut about 150 of them, shipped them to Mexico and used them on shipments of rubber and zinc oxide,” he says. “Low and behold, they worked.”
After that, they shipped some samples to Southeast Asia, where about 80% of the rubber in the world is grown, and had another success. “We were off and running and I filed for some patents,” Trickett says.
So just what is the Slip-Tray? First, it’s constructed from high-density polyethylene, the same plastic material used to make a milk jug. It looks a little like a plastic slip sheet topped with the lid of cardboard box turned upside down – that’s the tray. The combination of the material and the tray provides the Slip-Tray with enough integrity to slide lift truck forks underneath without using either of the slip sheet attachments on the market. You can see a video here.
Since Trickett’s existing customers are shipping very heavy bulk loads, most don’t try to double stack, but with traditional pallet load weights – say 2,000 to 5,000 lbs – loads can be stacked. EnvirOpak makes a special skid plate that goes on top of loads that will be stacked which allows a fork to fit between the loads without damaging the product on the bottom load.
The Slip-Tray cannot be racked, but Trickett has developed a captive pallet system that allows a customer to store a load in pallet rack and then only remove the Slip-Tray for shipment.
Last, the product is priced to compete with one-way wooden pallets – between $4 and $8 each – and is recyclable. Trickett can grind down used Slip-Trays to make new products.
His next target is food and consumer packaged goods manufacturers who are shipping on slip sheets. “Everything we’ve done until now has been bulk goods,” says Trickett. “But we’re working now on a project to shipped finished goods from Sri Lanka to France.”
He acknowledges that while he’s competitive with a one-way wooden pallet, his product is more expensive than a slip sheet. “But, in my opinion, a slip sheet doesn’t work very well,” he says. “If that’s the case, it’s not good at any price.”