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Pallets: slippery sustainability subjects

If you think that being the backbone of supply chains worldwide is enough to give pallets a sustainability pass, you haven’t been paying attention.

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
With billions of pallets in service in the United States and billions more doing──or more accurately, allowing──the heavy lifting around the world, the consumption of resources that those numbers imply make pallets prime candidates for sustainability.  And it turns out that pallets, those inglorious but indispensible workhorses, are the perfect metaphor for the complexities, contradictions, and challenges that define sustainability.

Knock on wood

Though more than 9 of 10 pallets are made from wood, a natural, renewable resource, but that's not enough to shield wood pallets from criticisms.  One complaint is that (in the U.S., at least) pallets are second only to home construction in the consumption of lumber.  Well, pallets have to be made out of something, and given modern forestry management methods, there's no reason that trees should be regarded as endangered species.

The criticism against wood pallets that's the most hammering, however, concerns the number of them that end up in landfills.  The landfill criticism is almost as heterogeneous as the contents of its namesake. When applied to plastics, for example, a big concern is over plastics' centuries-spanning permanence, a property not shared by wood.  With certain other materials and substances, toxicity and the potential to leach into groundwater holds sway, but, again, not something applicable to wood.

Even if we distill the criticism to diversion from landfills is environmentally-responsible, regardless of a material's properties, proposed solutions should provide incentives; otherwise, they're less likely to be implemented (short of regulatory dictate).  Take, for example, single-trip, disposable pallets. A shipper's bye-bye attitude likely has economic rationale.  That's typically the case with overseas shipments.  Perhaps more common, some shippers are unwilling to undertake the expenses associated with pallet pools or the management of a closed-loop system.  In short, to expect shippers to take a financial hit simply in the name of sustainability is unrealistic.  There will be few takers.

Then again, where are all the entrepreneurial, innovative end-of-life uses for pallets?  Waste-to-energy incineration doesn't qualify, in addition to being a favorite target of environmentalists, anyway.  Aside from the removal of nails or other fasteners, there would seem to be no other separation-of-materials issue to confound an imaginative recycling concept.  Yet we're still awaiting that visionary who's on a par with whoever first looked at sawdust and foresaw an industry of compressed fireplace logs.

Putdowns on plastic

Suppliers of plastic pallets claim that their products provide advantages over the wood competition relative to performance; however, regardless of the merits of such claims, sustainability is an issue, in and of itself.  There, plastic pallets draw criticism for just being plastic.  Being a derivative of a resource that's not only nonrenewable but associated with a big carbon footprint trumps all other considerations, at least in the minds of detractors.

Even at an explosive growth rate (which they haven't been experiencing), it would require quite a number of years for plastic pallets to seriously challenge, let alone supplant wood as the predominant material.  Nonetheless, from a sustainability perspective, plastic pallets engender headwinds that blow beyond that industry and across the plastic packaging landscape, in general.   For if pallets comprised of a single polymer and therefore more easily recycled are demonized, how can flexible packaging, with its laminations, coextrusions, and other multi-layer structures ever be exempt from a similar characterization?   It's no mere rhetorical question; rather, it's one that reminds us of the need to approach sustainability from a perspective that acknowledges that there are no perfect materials and that each has its environmental plusses and minuses, which, on net, should establish that material's sustainability ranking.

Hope in hybrids?

A pallet that's part wood, part plastic, and more sustainable than one comprised solely of either illustrates that, like the ancient Roman god, Janus, sustainability has a head with two faces pointed in opposite directions.  Actually, it can be argued that sustainability has Janus beat in number of directions.  There are various commercialized examples of hybrids, but one in particular is a wood pallet that has a specialty high-impact resistant plastic bumper on each end (the width side), its purpose being to protect the end deck boards (the components of the pallet most vulnerable to damage from fork-lift handling).  The pallet, therefore, has a longer service life, as reflected in a limited 10-year warranty.  The longer service life, so says the manufacturer, translates into fewer trees consumed and fewer ending up in landfills.  Is that enough to earn sustainability bona-fides? Maybe so, maybe not, which is an answer that Janus would love.

To be factored into determining the net sustainability of that hybrid pallet are: the high-compression molding process that makes the bumpers; the polymer, said to come from waste sources; the additional assembly steps; and, finally, all the associated energy inputs.  A pallet so built becomes a physical asset, its whereabouts to be known and managed at all times; so, also factor all resources required for such management.  And since the pallet is one of extended life and not one of eternal life, how does its dual-material composition complicate its end-of-life options?

What if the concept were carried farther, such that the outer stringers on a four-way pallet were made of the same material as the bumpers or even made of plastic lumber; after all, outer stringers are vulnerable to fork-lift damage when the pallet is handled from the length direction.

Changing the subject, hybrid plastic pallets are a possibility, the practicality not necessarily a foregone conclusion, however.  Assume a plastic pallet that's been light-weighted, no different than the source-reduction practiced with a variety of other packages; however, in order to withstand loads weighing thousands of pounds, the pallet is strategically reinforced, say, with metal components.  For that matter, the reinforcement might be achieved by incorporating a particularly high-density polymer.  In either case, the result is a pallet that has its own sustainability profile.  But without an objective identification of all the environmental factors followed by a reliable formulaic weighing, one can't determine the tipping point where the pursuit of improved sustainability generates the opposite result.

Meanwhile, there's one fact that was determined over eighty years ago and is constantly being verified; namely, pallets are a boon to supply-chains, providing cost-savings and efficiencies throughout.  And that's a fact that delights industry's collective palate.

 Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center- Box 43176; Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax;;
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