Earlier this spring,
the Washington Conservation Corps faced a sudden influx of beach debris on the state’s southwestern shore. Time and tide were beginning to deposit the aftereffects of Japan’s March 2011 tsunami. One of the myriad objects retrieved was a plastic pallet, scuffed and swimming-pool green, bearing the words: “19-4 (salt) (return required), and, below that, “Japan salt service.” A year earlier, Dubai’s police made the region’s largest narcotics bust when they intercepted a container, carried on a Liberian registered-ship, that had originated from Pakistan. Acting on an informant’s tip, police searched the container’s cargo—heavy bags of iron filings—to no avail. Only after removing every bag did police decide to check the pallets on which the bags had rested. Inside each was a hollowed-out section holding 500 to 700 grams of heroin. Two random stories plucked from the annals of shipping. What unites these disparate tales of things lost (and hidden) on the seas is that they each draw attention to something that usually goes unnoticed: The pallet, that humble construction of wood joists and planks upon which most every object in the world, at some time or another, is carried. “Pallets move the world,” says Mark White, an emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and director of the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet & Container Research Laboratory and the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design. And, as the above stories illustrate, the world moves pallets, often in mysterious ways. Pallets, of course, are merely one cog in the global machine for moving things. But while shipping containers, for instance, have had their due, in Marc Levinson’s surprisingly illustrative book “The Box,” pallets rest outside of our imagination, regarded as scrap wood sitting outside grocery stores or holding massive jars of olives at Costco. And yet pallets are arguably as integral to globalization as containers. For an invisible object, they are everywhere: There are said to be billions circulating through global supply chain (2 billion in the United States alone). Some 80 percent of all U.S. commerce is carried on pallets. So widespread is their use that they account for, according to one estimate, more than 46 percent of total U.S. hardwood lumber production. Companies like Ikea have literally designed products around pallets. Its “Bang” mug, notes Colin White in his book “Strategic Management,” has had three redesigns, each done not for aesthetics but to ensure that more mugs would fit on a pallet. After the changes, it was possible to fit 2,204 mugs on a pallet, rather than the original 864, which created a 60 percent reduction in shipping costs. There is a whole science of “pallet-cube optimization,” a kind of Tetris for packaging; and an associated engineering, filled with analyses of “pallet overhang” (stacking cartons so they hang over the edge of the pallet, resulting in losses of carton strength) and efforts to reduce “pallet gaps” (too much spacing between deckboards). The “pallet-loading problem” — or the question of how to fit the most boxes onto a single pallet — is a common operations research thought exercise.
Pallet history is both humble and dramatic. As Pallet Enterprise magazine recounts, pallets grew out of simple wooden “skids,” which had been used to help transport goods from shore to ship and were, essentially, pallets without a bottom set of boards, hand-loaded by longshoremen and then, typically, hoisted by winch into a ship’s cargo hold.