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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.

Pallet primer

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.

Dick McCarrick
Dick McCarrick is an analyst with Foresight Science & Technology.
 
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16 thoughts on “The Problem with Pallets

  1. Valuable discussion. Keep in mind, however, that not all wooden pallets are the same. CHEP, for example, is the largest “pallet pooling” company in the world. Unlike wooden pallets that get used a couple of times and end up in the landfill, a pooler retains ownership of the pallet and retrieves them after use by a customer. This closed-loop system means the pallets are repaired when needed and re-used many times. CHEP’s pallets are made from certified sources and they use no harmful chemicals for fumigation. The enviromental footprint of this model is low. And while some think plastic pallets are the answer, keep in mind that not only are they made from fossil fuels, plastic pallets require chemical flame retardants, the most common of which, decaBDE, is an extremely hazardous chemical. Plastic pallets are in fact one of if not the single largest source of deca in the environment.

  2. Besides the environmental challenges mentioned, one of the biggest issues not mentioned is the hitchhiking possibilities that pallets represent. Since we are shipping things around the world using wooden pallets, we are providing foreign insects with potential places to hide and attach their nests. And since invasive species represent the greatest threat to global biodiversity, this issue needs to be factored into the future fate of wooden pallets as a potential tool for international shippping. Because, oftentimes, all it takes is one non-native insect to wreak havoc on our agricultural systems.

  3. I agree Dick!… We re-used a lot of pallets – some oak, in our Hawaiian Rainforest home project. They are great for fencing, compost systems, and all sorts of other things.

    We also reused a couple of ISO containers,which have black oak flooring as well… and would be rusting away now. Abandoned by the China-US cargo trade, there were reports the pile in Long Beach was so high – the sun was setting an hour early – each night! These are, of course, not only trendy and appealing to “emergency housing” architects worldwide… they are also now accepted by International Building Code standards(2008)and therefore can be compliant to permitting requirements and insurance.

  4. Great article Dick and glad to see you recognize the value of the American forest worker and timber/logging industries. As a one-time high school worker in the timber/logging industry I can attest to the love for nature that most have who are fortunate enough to work in the great outdoors.

    As to nails, if we can build furniture and entire buildings from wood without nails why haven’t we created the nail-less pallet?

  5. The use of molded fiber pallets would solve a few problems. However, my concern is that the paper molding process could have a more negative environmental impact than just continuing to use the pallets as is. A question for Dick McCarrick, if he is monitoring this site, is: has an LCA been run on the mold paper vs traditional pallet form? And, how did that turn out?

  6. Good article – I would also add the impact of fumigating wood pallets with 2,4,6, tribromophenol or other fumigants as a health/safety issue with wood pallets, although in NAmerica, heat treatment is more widely done. Although I don’t see the wood pallet going entirely away, there are other options like slip sheets and other pallet alternatives that can greatly reduce the need.

  7. Want more forests? Use more wood. I would hate to see a plastic substitute reach the market because of casual opinions shaped by a Dr. Seuss movie. As a founding member of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, grew to realize: Trees are the Answer. The use of a sustainable and renewable product for anything is a good thing in my opinion.

  8. This article is not based in facts. Wooden pallets are one of the most recycled products in the USA. Please visit the National Wooden Pallet and Container Assocation website to get a true picture. Most states do not allow wooden pallets into their landfills. Most landfill operators collect and sell pallets that make it into their waste stream. Please do your research.

  9. Whoever made the comment about this article not being “based on facts” should have read the entire article before making the rude comment: “please do your research.” The author clearly stated that one such study indicated that 73% of pallets are recycled. And, in fact, he went on to say that pallets are recycled at a greater rate than paper, plastics and aluminum. Maybe you should spend more time paying attention to what your reading, rather than criticizing.

  10. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Rick. I suspect Mr. Doyle may have stopped reading the article somewhere during the “Pallet Primer” section, in which I do mention several of the more common objections people often raise when discussing pallet use. But as you note, the article goes on to explain why objections based solely on “cutting down trees = bad” is probably a too simplistic — and ultimately even self-defeating — approach. Unfortunately, I think reactions such as Mr. Doyle’s may be all too common when discussing environmental issues: when one reads anything contrary to their own views, everything else the author may have to say on the subject gets tossed by the wayside because from that point on the author is an opponent who is ignorant of the facts (or worse). And in some cases this may in fact be the case. But as with all things related to the environment, it’s rarely if ever that simple, and we often end up talking past one another even though we may largely agree on certain points. In any event, thank you for the support; I appreciate it.

  11. Interesting article especially the stunning claims that 73% of wood pallets are recycled an that only 3% end up in landfill. Big claims not just that no proof. Come on Dick as an analyst you know unsubstantiated opinion does not cut it.

  12. Hi Dirk. Those numbers aren’t “unsubstantiated opinion.” The 3% number comes from a joint study by the US Forestry Service and Virginia Tech, while the 73% number comes from a study conducted by Modern Materials Handling.

    Interesting that at this point I’ve been taken to task for both being too hard on pallets and too easy on them. I suppose that may be a good sign I’ve charted the middle course and presented both sides fairly (at least that’s how I like to interpret it anyway!).

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