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Virginia Tech: Convergence of Two Shades of Green — Environmental Impacts from the Manufacture, Use, and Disposal of Pallets
Today, more than ever, participants in the global supply chain are considering complicated questions and evaluating the eco-balance of a particular product design.

By Peter Hamner, Marshall White
Date Posted: 11/1/2007

   The word green in today’s world has become synonymous with environmental sustainability. Sustainability is another buzzword that refers to the application of processes or the use of resources that can be maintained indefinitely. Some believe that environmental considerations are the enemy of profit. But recent research in the pallet industry is showing a convergence of these two shades of green.

   The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sustainable development as the “marriage of two important themes: that environmental protection does not preclude economic development and that economic development must be ecologically viable now and in the long run.” As environmental awareness increases, many businesses and industries are assessing how their activities affect the environment. The pallet industry and users of pallets are no exception.

   Today, more than ever, participants in the global supply chain are considering complicated questions and evaluating the eco-balance of a particular product design. In the case of pallets this question is broken down into how the manufacturing and distribution processes, uses (including reusability), and disposal practices of various pallet materials and processes compare in terms of resource and energy use, solid waste generation, and emissions? Companies are also looking at the environmental impact caused by various materials and processes at different stages in their life cycle. These are complex and difficult questions, and the answers extend beyond the typical dollars and cents decision making criteria.

   In order to understand the environmental impacts of a particular pallet design or manufacturing process, it is necessary to investigate all the inputs and outputs that make up the full life cycle of that pallet. This “cradle to grave” analysis—the measurement of the environmental impact of manufacturing and using products and packaging—is called life cycle analysis, or simply LCA. 


Life Cycle Analysis

   Because of growing concerns over the last 50-60 years of human activity on the environment, the development of LCA has evolved into a tool that allows manufacturers to quantify how much energy and raw material are used, and how much solid, liquid, and gaseous waste is generated at each stage of a products life. In fact, guidelines for performing an LCA have been somewhat standardized and are built into the international Environmental Management Standard known as ISO 14000. Similar to ISO 9000 (quality management), ISO 14000 exists to help organizations minimize how their operations negatively affect the environment, comply with applicable laws, regulations, and other environmentally oriented requirements, and improve in these areas.

   LCA (ISO 14040) considers the following characteristics:

   • Design and functionality of the product

   • The extraction and processing of materials

   • The processes used in manufacturing

   • Packaging and distribution

   • How the product is used

   • Recycling, reuse and disposal

   LCA is used by designers during product development and manufacturers during the production stage. LCA has the greatest potential to affect costs and reduce environmental impacts at the design stage of a product. At this point 70 to 80% of costs are determined. 

   LCA is also used to redesign or reengineer existing products. Perhaps the most useful application of LCA for the pallet industry is to provide comparative analysis between pallets made from different materials and/or processes—for example wood vs. plastic; or a single-use vs. a multiple-use pallet.

   The major benefits of LCA are the following:

   • It can help reduce costs throughout the life cycle of a pallet

   • Improve efficiency and utilization

   • Reduce environmental impact

   • Ensure compliance with environmental legislation

   • Enhance product marketing (i.e. eco labeling).

   While the information provided by LCA can be extremely useful, the interpretation of the data may require value judgments. The output of an LCA depends on the quality and accuracy of the input data. Where the process is somewhat standardized, the quality of data is often debated.

   Problems with LCA arise due to the fact that decisions, without scientific basis, are necessarily subjective. Who can say that three tons of emissions from one particular pollutant are more or less harmful than just a few pounds of another more toxic pollutant? It is also unclear how to compare the use of non-renewable resources like oil or gas (for plastics) with the production of naturally renewable wood resources. Therefore, life cycle analysis must be used cautiously. While LCA can be a valuable and effective tool for assessing costs and environmental impacts, it should not be utilized exclusively for decision making purposes.


Comparative Study:
Wood vs. Plastic Pallets

   In many countries, particularly in the Far East, plastic pallets are or are expected to become a serious competitor to wood pallets.

   A recent study conducted by the Netherlands Packaging and Pallet Industry Association used LCA as a research method to compare the environmental aspects between manufacturing and using a 1000 x 1200mm multiple use pallet and a similar synthetic plastic pallet (50% recycled plastic and 50% new HDPE).

   The analysis followed the product from the procurement of raw materials through to the processing of residues. Each stage was examined based on environmental consequences. The following aspects were relevant in this study:

   • the use of fossilized raw materials

   • the use of reproducible raw materials

   • the storage space of residues

   • the greenhouse effect

   • the impact on the ozone layer

   • the risk of intoxication for man and animal, water and soil

   • acidification

   • top-dressing

   The research assumed 1,000 trips for both pallets. Because plastic pallets are better managed than wood pallets it was assumed that loss percentage was 2% for wood pallets and 1% for plastic pallets. Also, it was assumed that the reject percentage was 4% for wood pallets and 2% for plastic pallets, since plastic pallets are more durable than wood. The important findings from this study are presented in Table 1.

   The results of this study show that wood pallets offer a considerably more positive environmental image than plastic pallets. For example, the manufacture and use of plastic pallets consumes about five times more energy than wood pallets according to this study. In terms of LCA, multiple-use wood pallets use considerably less raw material and energy and contribute far less emissions into water and air than plastic pallets. This research provides a strong endorsement for the production and use of wood pallets.


Comparative Study:
Single-use vs. Multiple-use Wood Pallets

   In another similar study, also conducted by the Netherlands Packaging and Pallet Industry Association, LCA was used to compare the environmental impacts between manufacturing and using an 800 x 1200 mm single-use wood pallet and a similar sized multiple-use wood pallet. It is important to note that the multiple-use wood pallet was manufactured using approximately two times more wood than the single-use pallet. The results from this LCA comparison are presented in Table 2.

   The results from this study indicate that the energy consumption, solid waste generated, and gas emissions from manufacturing and using multiple-use wood pallets is approximately half that of single-use wood pallets, even though multiple-use pallets cost more up front and use over twice as much wood. 

   In summary, it seems that wood used for pallets and packaging materials is, and will continue to be, an environmentally sound option. Across the broader spectrum, and looking at the way we do business, it is clear that utilizing a life cycle perspective can promote a more sustainable rate of production and consumption and help us use our limited financial and natural resources more effectively. By optimizing output and deriving more benefit from the time, money, and materials we use, we can derive increased value from our investments – such as wealth creation, accessibility to wealth, health and safety conditions, and fewer environmental impacts.

   A key to reducing environmental impact is reducing the amount of raw material per use in a pallet. Raw material cost is the largest cost component of wood pallet manufacture. As the industry naturally reduces cost to remain competitive by increasing pallet part yields, the manufacture and use of wood pallets becomes more sustainable. Cost reduction, increasing profits, and reducing environmental impacts are very compatible concepts.

   For more information, please contact Peter Hamner at the Virginia Tech -Center for Unit Load Design (phamner@vt.edu).

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