Wood pallets are highly sustainable, in part because of their high rate of recyclability. According to the latest research available, 508 million wood pallets are produced annually in the U.S. each year, while only 25 million of them end up in landfills, down from 178.5 million in 1998.
Old wood pallet material is utilized in many creative ways. With a laudable recycling rate of 95%, most end-of-life wood pallets are processed to create other products. Recovered lumber is used for pallet repair or re-manufactured pallet components as well as other purposes, while unusable lumber is reduced to fiber for many applications.
This approach improves the economics as well as the sustainability of pallet recycling. Recovered wood is much less expensive than virgin material, and as such, it provides cost advantages versus new components both for repair as well as pallet re-manufacturing.
There are also sustainability advantages associated with this practice, known as “cascading use”. Cascading use refers to the method of recovering material for the next most valuable alternative – such as pallet boards, and eventually, fiber. This approach reduces the carbon footprint impact at each stage of use thanks to recycled material availability, which is much less carbon-intensive to produce than virgin fiber alternatives.
Here is what happens to end-of-life pallets:
When pallets are too severely damaged to repair, or they are not a popular size, pallet recyclers typically dismantle them using a bandsaw dismantler. Broken components are sent to the grinder, while pallet recyclers use intact pallet boards or stringers to repair other pallets.
Recyclers also use intact recovered pallet components in the assembly of combo or re-manufactured pallets. The variability of sizing in recovered pallet boards and stringers makes them more challenging to work with than new material. Increasingly, the pallet industry is turning to automated nailing systems as well as lumber sizing and sorting machinery to enhance the efficiency of re-manufacturing.
Old pallets have become extremely popular for upcycling arts and crafts projects, as well as pallet art. Architectural trends such as industrial chic embrace the look of weathered pallet wood material. As a result, some pallet recyclers are also now selling recovered pallet lumber to home builders for installations such as feature walls.
Where nearby manufacturing plants exist, fiber can be utilized in wood composite products such as particleboard and fiberboard sheets for construction, and as filler in absorbent socks for spill containment. Wood fiber is also used in material handling products such as wood composite pallet blocks, molded wood plugs and pallets.
Popular applications for recycled fiber including colored landscaping mulch as well as animal bedding and soil amendments. A soil amendment is when wood fiber is added to soil to improve its water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, and aeration. The goal of a soil amendment is to create a better environment for roots to take hold within the soil.
Wood fiber is used as boiler fuel as well as in other applications to generate energy. Aside from bulk fiber, wood fiber can also be compressed or densified into more compact products such as pellets, cubes, briquettes or fire-logs. Densified products have a higher value and are more economical to ship a greater distance.
Ongoing research continues to uncover new applications for wood fiber, while other markets are anticipated to grow. Fiber applications expected to play a larger role in the future include biochar, a soil amendment utilizing charcoal, and cross-laminated timber (CLT). CLT involves the usage of smaller pieces of wood to manufacture larger panels.
The discussion above illustrates how pallet recycling follows the cascading use principle, utilizing material for its next most valuable use, whether as pallet boards, feature walls, or several fiber products. Such an approach optimizes the economic value of wood while enhancing its sustainability story.
As supply chain decision-makers urgently turn their focus toward sustainability, they are looking at opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions through initiatives such as renewable energy, transportation optimization, IoT (internet of Things), and more. But have you considered how wood pallet and packaging recycling can make a difference for your sustainability aspirations?
The funny thing about pallets, like other things in life, is that if you aren’t aware of them, they are easy to overlook. In the United States, there are 2 billion of them hiding in plain sight. If we assume 50 lbs of wood per pallet, that amount translates into 100 billion pounds of wood, which sequesters roughly 45 to 50 billion pounds of carbon. We will return to the CO2 reduction benefits of wood pallet and container reuse and recycling in the next post.
Once people become aware of pallets, however, some folks are surprised to realize that pallets are on the job almost everywhere in supply chains from inbound material at the production plant to supporting unit loads arriving at the retail outlet.
As the National Wood Pallet & Container Association states, “Pallets Move the World®”. According to one report, around 94% of industrial and consumer goods in the United States travel on a pallet at some point in their supply chain journey from producer to distribution location to end customer.
The MH1-2016 standard defines the pallet as a “portable, horizontal, rigid, composite platform used as (a) base for assembling, storing, stacking, handling and transporting goods as a unit load; often equipped with (a) superstructure.” When products are stacked on top of a pallet, the combination of goods and a pallet is known as a unit load.
The mechanized handling of materials in unit loads offers many benefits versus the manual handling of goods. This practice helps protect sensitive products from damage associated with “touch labor” or manually repositioning each box, for example. The pallet also protects products during interaction with material handling equipment such as forklifts, conveyors, pallet storage racks and automated storage and retrieval systems. Palletized unit loads can be stored more efficiently than unpalletized goods in most storage systems or through the stacking of unit loads. Palletization also dramatically increases the speed of loading and unloading versus floor loaded or unpalletized goods, and through the avoidance of manual handling, improves workplace safety.
Pallets or wood packaging may be used for a single supply chain link or to move goods through multiple links. For example, plywood orchard bins move fresh tree fruit to the packing shed where it is packed and palletized onto a wood pallet. The bin is reused in the orchard, while the pallet is employed for delivery of packaged fruit to a grocery distribution center, and then perhaps as the base for a full unit load or a mixed pallet load assembled for delivery to the retail outlet. In a mainframe computer supply chain, on the other hand, components may arrive palletized, with the sensitive finished product then shipped in a custom wood container to the customer location.
In part 2, we will take a look at the life cycle and recycling of wood packaging and the positive impact that recycling has on carbon emissions.
Forest fires are one of the most destructive natural disasters that can possibly hit dense forest areas. It is hard to contemplate why anyone would ever consider forest fires to be ‘needed’ when so many trees, animals, plants and resources get destroyed during these fires. However, some of the resources, especially burnt trees, can often be harvested after a forest fire and reused on wood pallets.
Fires are important for regeneration and renewal of forests across the globe. These fires clean out flammable litter like leaves, logs and more on the forest floors. By cleaning out all this litter the forest stays healthy since many pests and diseases are destroyed in the process. The cleaning of forest floors also prevents extensive and extreme fires from occurring because fires are much easier to keep under control or extinguish when there is less litter around. The fires also reduce density and open the canopy which allows the sunlight to reach other plants and boosts new and fresh growth.
In some cases, tree loggers can harvest burnt trees after a forest fire so the logs can be salvaged. In many instances, once a log is processed into lumber it’s impossible to tell that the log came from a firery forest. These products pass grade inspections and are used home building in furniture construction. In other cases, the log will portray visible defects in which case an ideal application for these discolored products is wood pallets and crates. The discoloration often found from these logs is usually not a problem for wood pallet recyclers. In fact, for many buyers, it’s often a good deal because the main defect is discoloration you can often get a better overall quality product!
Even when forest fires burn through the forest floor, trees are still valuable, renewable resources. Burnt sites will regenerate and regrow plant life much quicker than normal plant growth. This is because the fire itself provides plant life with valuable nutrients and minerals. The forest also catches up to coniferous forests quickly because young trees and plants have much more room to prosper and grow thanks to reduced density and a boost in sunlight on the forest floor.