In the USA, a single piece of industrial equipment is responsible for over half the total consumption of hardwood. For many industries this piece of equipment is essential for the safe and easy storage and transport of goods and materials around sites and warehouses as well as between factories, storage units and retail outlets. Around 95% of this equipment is made of wood and many of it is designed for single use. We are talking, of course, of the pallet.

Here in the UK we face the same issue. Pallet yards, industrial sites and warehouses across the country house these incredibly versatile and useful pieces of equipment throughout the year. Whilst many are reused, a significant proportion is not and inevitably some end up in landfill. Not only is this expensive, many companies are beginning to wake up to the environmental issue of sending so much wood to landfill; particularly when much of it contains nails or screws.

Pallets: The Environmental Debate

Now, whilst on the face of it this looks like a terribly inefficient use of wood the big picture is not quite as bleak. Whilst pallet manufacturers do consume a great deal of wood, it is important to realise that it is lower grade wood that could not otherwise be sold commercially. The poor cuts, which don’t possess the aesthetic or mechanical properties needed to produce products that can be sold commercially, are used in pallet production.

The effect of this is twofold. Firstly, it reduces the waste produced by the lumber industry and one could actually argue it delays the time cast-off wood takes to reach landfill. Moreover, forestry companies can increase their revenues by selling the wood that would have otherwise been thrown away.

Moreover, companies across the country are starting to strive towards reusing and recycling pallets wherever possible. Where possible, pallets are re-used, naturally extending their longevity.

Re-cycling has become more popular for a number of reasons, not least pressure from governments and local authorities on companies to reduce their waste and environmental footprint. This, coupled with new recycling techniques has led to a gradual reduction in the amount of used pallets going to landfill.

One example of such technology has been developed to remove the nails from used pallets. This, a previously arduous and time expensive task, has been made much faster and easier. As a result, companies are increasingly recycling wood into wood fibre, which in turn can be used to create a variety of products including mulch, insulation and fuel.

Different types of pallet material are also becoming increasingly popular meaning less wood goes towards pallet production and ultimately ends up in landfill. The new materials are all fully recyclable and often enable a pallet to be re-used over and over again.

Metals, plastics and even cardboard pallets have been designed and used and are now not uncommon sights in pallet yards across the UK.

Altogether, some estimates suggest that the number of pallets that end up in landfills fall to below 5% as a result of this drive towards recycling and re-using. What is more, the pallets that do end up in landfill are almost entirely biodegradable and so have a far lesser environmental impact.

It is worth considering the machinery and vehicles that are used in the storage and transportation of pallets too. Companies hire or purchase forklift trucks and telehandlers from companies such as UK Forks in order to safely move pallets across their yards and sites. These vehicles are becoming evermore energy efficient and so further driving down the environmental footprint of pallet use. As firms update or replace their material handling equipment, this footprint will shrink further as older machines are replaced by more efficient models.

To conclude, whilst on the face of it the pallet industry may appear to be rather environmentally friendly, steps are being taken and indeed have already been taken to drive down its environmental footprint. A strive to recycle and reuse pallets, driven by a number of factors are reducing the amount of used pallets that end up in landfill. Moreover, pallets are being produced with new materials that are more easily reused or recycled. Even the handling machines and vehicles are increasingly efficient. The end result being that the pallet industry is as environmentally friendly as ever.