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.
Trees within forests are like wind and solar power in that they are a renewable resource. Whereas wind and solar energy can be regenerated relatively continuously, trees require more time to convert solar energy to wood so it can be utilized. In this article we’ll take a quick look at a tree’s growth cycle.
Tree seedlings will often wait for ideal environmental conditions to arise before sprouting. Some species of tree seeds will remain intact for many years, waiting for the perfect environment, while others will only sprout under extreme conditions such as a forest fire. Only when the seeds are exposed to the right conditions will they sprout.
A seedling will appear above the ground and the first two leaves will start to absorb sunlight to provide energy for further growth. Seedlings will then start developing woody characteristics and will continue to grow and seek out the sun. Saplings are usually 1 – 4 inches in diameter and about 4.5 feet in height. Many nurseries will sell saplings at this point in the tree’s growth cycle because they are capable of being transplanted with a high survival rate.
It is during the early growth phases of a tree’s life that it absorbs the most amount of carbon. During the process of photosynthesis, young trees convert carbon dioxide to breathable oxygen and use the carbon internally for growth. When hundreds of thousands of trees within a forest complete this process simultaneously, they fight global warming by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
About half of any given piece of lumber’s net weight is carbon that was sequestered from the atmosphere and lumber will continue to store that carbon until it naturally disintegrates or is burned for energy. No part of a tree goes to waste! The bark and branches are used for supplies like garden mulch and animal bedding whereas the lower quality of lumber from a tree is used to make wood pallets. According to the research article “Pallet Re-Use and Recycling Saves High Value Material from Landfills,” there are about 4 billion wood pallets in circulation just in the United States. Wood pallets have been used for decades and have established themselves as the safest and most reliable way to transport goods and services while storing carbon sequestered from the atmosphere.
Food microbiologists are constantly studying microorganisms that often inhabit or contaminate food. The main purpose of their research and studies is to prevent food spoilage that result from contamination and to prevent the spread human illnesses. Food microbiologists are constantly developing new methods and giving precautions to prevent food spoilage or food contamination. One of the latest findings was quite remarkable since it was determined that wood pallets could play an important role in preventing food contamination or bacteria and microorganism inhabitation.
Plastic is mostly considered safer because the surface of plastic appears smooth and can be wiped clean and disinfected. Wood, however, is much different. Wood cannot be disinfected the way plastic can but food microbiologists discovered that wood pallets does in fact enhance food safety. The reason for this is because wood absorbs bacteria, germs and microorganisms and prevents these harmful elements from spreading from one source to another.
Professor Dean Cliver of the University of California, Davis has studied the differences in how plastics and wood absorb bacteria in kitchen cutting boards. In one study, Professor Cliver notes that once the cellulose in wood absorbs bacteria, it will not release it. Alternatively, plastic absorbs bacteria differently. When small cracks are made into the plastic’s surface, they radiate, which creates space for bacteria to travel. The bacteria can go dormant and although drying will kill the majority of the bacteria, the rest could linger for weeks.
“In one test, raw chicken juice was spread on samples of used wood and plastic cutting boards. Both boards were washed in hot soapy water and dried, then knives were used to simulate cutting vegetables for a salad. No bacteria appears on the knives cut on wood, but there were plenty on the knives used on the plastic boards.”
According to the article “The Role of Pallets in Microbial Food Safety,” pallets of all types are never intended to be in direct contact with food. Additionally, similar to Professor Cliver’s findings regarding plastic cutting boards, scars on used plastic tend to harbor bacteria and bacteria seem to be less likely to transfer from wood than from plastic.
Whether using wood as a kitchen cutting board or as a wood pallet, the properties of wood are the same: they absorb bacteria and once absorbed, they do not release it. In addition to being sustainably sourced and 100% recyclable, the cellular properties of wood allow them to absorb bacteria that could spread human illnesses. Wood pallets are indeed the safest type of pallet.