The Problem with Pallets
Dr. Suess’s Lorax is getting a lot of publicity these days, starring in his own feature movie. The creature “speaks for the trees” and his life’s goal is to get people to stop cutting them down. His message is pretty simple — and some may argue, overly simplistic — but it appears to be resonating with audiences, if the film’s apparent widespread success is any indication.
One might therefore wonder what the Lorax and his many fans might make of the fact that one single application consumes as much hardwood in the US annually as all others combined. Further, this application is frequently designed to use this wood only once and then discard it, in a way that limits the possibility of recycling — despite the fact that more durable and reusable substitutes can be readily found. And yet, this application scarcely ever seems to register on the environmental radar. I’m talking about none other than the humble, lowly shipping pallet.
Shipping pallets, also known as skids, are the sorts of things most people don’t often think about — but once you do, you start seeing them everywhere, especially in places where goods are shipped, stored, and sold. (Trust me, if you have a typical commute through an urban/suburban landscape you’ll probably see dozens on your way home this evening.) Basically, they’re designed to protect loads in shipment and help make them more easily handled, stacked, and moved. The majority of these pallets (an estimated 95 percent) are made of wood.
The number of pallets out there is truly staggering. Nearly 2 billion wooden pallets are currently in circulation in the US alone, with a majority of them replaced each year. This consumes an estimated 50 percent of the country’s annual hardwood harvest. This in turn represents a very significant market for the lumber industry ($6 billion in annual sales if you can believe it), especially when one considers that roughly half of these pallets are intended to be used only once and then discarded. And since the pallets tend to be full of difficult-to-remove nails, a percentage of these single-use pallets often end up in landfills.
These facts have led some environmental groups to label wooden pallets as a major waste of resources and to call for their replacement with more ecologically friendly alternatives. And some in industry appear to be doing just that. For instance, IKEA, the world’s largest provider of home furnishings, recently announced plans to phase out corporate use of wooden pallets and replace them with recyclable paper pallets. Among the reasons cited is the fact that wooden pallets currently account for 50 percent of the company’s total global use of pine and spruce.
On the other hand…
At face value, these numbers appear to indicate that pallets comprise an exceedingly inefficient use of wood resources. However, the actual situation may be a little more complicated. (Is it ever any other way when environmental issues are concerned?) For instance, it’s true that pallets consume a lot of wood. But much of this consists of relatively low-grade cuts from parts of the tree that have little or no other commercial value. Thus pallets offer a way for the forestry and lumber industries — which have been especially hard hit by the recent recession — to derive revenue from timber byproduct that might otherwise be simply discarded. (As an amateur woodworker, I can personally vouch for this. I’ve built furniture from boards I’ve reclaimed from old pallets. In the process, I’ve acquired a surprisingly broad array of species, including oak, cherry, maple, poplar, and even a couple of boards of what I think might have been chestnut. However, although it had plenty of rustic character, nearly all the lumber I obtained consisted of cuts from branches or other less-choice areas of the tree. So whoever made these pallets obviously didn’t waste any furniture-grade timber on them.)
There also appears to be a growing trend towards pallet recycling. For example, a relatively new technology has been developed that promises to make the removal of nails from a pallet — which up to now has been a major recycling challenge — much faster and easier. This could help drive the production of wood fiber created by grinding up old pallets; this wood fiber can then be used in products such as fuel pellets, building materials, mulch, insulation, and many others. One recent survey claims that 73 percent of all wooden pallets are now recycled, a rate that exceeds the recycling of aluminum, paper, and plastic. Another report estimates that only 3 percent of wooden pallets now end up in landfills, and when they do, they obligingly biodegrade.
Further, it should be pointed out that whatever their other shortcomings, wooden pallets do make use of a renewable resource, one of the few that (at least as of this writing) actually appears to be growing more abundant in the US, especially in the east where the forests continue their century-long recovery from the agriculturally led deforestation of the 1800s. For instance, it’s estimated that the standing timber volume per acre in US forests has grown 30 percent since 1952.
Pallets may not be the most scintillating of dinnertime conversation topics, but given their ubiquity — along with their associated environmental issues cited in this article — they probably merit more public attention and discussion than they currently receive. At a minimum, they can serve as an example of how environmental awareness doesn’t consist solely of considering and debating global, high-profile subjects; one also needs to take into account smaller, more local issues that may not receive a great deal of media notice. After all, such a discussion just might provide our friend the Lorax a significantly larger constituency for whom to speak.
Dick McCarrick is an analyst with Foresight Science & Technology.
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