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Letter from Ed: Your Cheating Heart…
Dr. Ed Brindley shares why he thinks the government should change the current policy requiring complete re-treating of ISPM-15 certified pallets when even one board is replaced.

By Edward C. Brindley, Jr.
Date Posted: 10/1/2009

            When I was a kid, I used to hear the expression, “Cheaters never win.”  I believe that to be true, especially if you get caught. The problem is that there are people out there who think they will never get caught and justify their unethical actions in their own minds.

            Amid the ongoing discussion of pallet treatment and certification for domestic wood pallets and packaging in the United States, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the potential for widespread cheating. True, there will always be some bad apples no matter the issue, requirement or situation. But regulators can certainly make changes that can alter people’s attitudes toward a particular law. And if the majority believes a law is unnecessary, unrealistic or too burdensome to meet, these same people won’t have a hard time justifying actions to circumvent those laws.

            This issue of the Enterprise contains an informative article by our assistant publisher, Chaille Brindley, on all the details and challenges posed by the development of a national rule requiring ISPM-15 compliance for all wood packaging material (WPM) circulating around the country. Regulators and some in the wood pallet industry are calling for one national rule to eliminate the confusing maze of local and state regulations that are popping up to spot the spread of specific pests.

            While there are many honorable people in the pallet and wood packaging industries, it also has its fair share of questionable characters. Some of these are going to test the system no matter what you do. But the ones that I am worried about are the companies on the bubble that are just looking for a reason not to comply with whatever regulations are established in regards to containing the spread of invasive wood pests.

            I consider myself to be fortunate to interact with the many good people our industry has. I have heard my friends often say something about the challenges in the road they face. It is so easy to cheat in little ways with pallets. It is easy to cut specifications by reducing board thicknesses and nail sizes. A creative person can find a lot of ways to cheat our customers. Why is it so easy? To borrow from Rodney Dangerfield, because pallets “don’t get no respect.” Many pallet customers do not really understand the pallet they are supposed to receive. And they don’t really care as long as it appears to work. What’s more, the people in the trenches who receive, store, use, and ship pallets, either unloaded or loaded, often don’t really understand what to look for.

            Specifically, I am concerned about the current interpretation of ISPM-15 by the accreditation agency in the United States. Although ISPM-15 is a voluntary treatment standard for wood packaging material (WPM) used around the globe, each country and its agencies are responsible for interpreting compliance within its borders.

            When it comes to repaired or re-manufactured pallets, the United States has among the toughest requirements in the world. U.S. companies cannot simply use HT-treated/ISPM-15 certified lumber to make repairs. Under existing heat treatment requirements in the United States, the entire pallet must be re-treated even if only one board is replaced.

            Bruce Scholnick, president of the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA), said, “The U.S. is the only country imposing the excessively stringent requirement to retreat and remark repaired pallets that use treated and marked lumber for repair. That rule was not determined necessary by APHIS, but rather imposed by the American Lumber Standards Committee (ALSC) who manages the heat treating program. That requirement exceeds ISPM-15 guidelines and needs to be modified. It is the biggest obstacle to industry consensus for a domestic standard.”

            I agree with the NWPCA that repairing or remanufacturing with compliant lumber should be enough to meet ISPM-15 requirements. This is currently the practice in Canada and to my knowledge most other countries.

            The ALSC has insisted on its current policy to reduce the likelihood of cheating or eliminate any ambiguity about the condition of the pallet when the new mark is applied. While these may seem like valid concerns, the cost and expense caused by this added requirement may actually encourage more cheating than it stops, especially if a domestic treatment requirement becomes a reality.

            One reason to require complete re-treating of repaired or remanufactured WPM is to eliminate any concern about who is responsible if a live pest is found on supposedly compliant packaging. I believe this will be less of a real problem than the disruption caused by the more stringent requirements.

            Keeping the existing heat treatment requirements could significantly impact pallet users and recyclers if a national treatment law is enacted. It would add unnecessary cost each time a board is replaced. Pallet users that have grown accustomed to on-site repair would have to put some sort of treatment capacity on site at distribution centers or ship those pallets to a treatment facility before reuse.

            Re-treating the entire pallet or packaging after every board replacement is sort of like repainting a car after every scratch. It just isn’t necessary. It basically amounts to insurance to clean up any “sins” of those who previously used, repaired or certified the WPM. If companies want to go to this effort to ensure that they are never at fault that is one thing. Demanding such a stringent level of compliance could easily backfire.

            My experience with human nature indicates that people who are going to cheat will do so unless there is a big stick to stop them. There is going to be a limited ability of the government and certification agencies to really monitor and go after every bad actor. They will have some success stories. But the real effectiveness of the program will depend on the industry and its ability to patrol itself. Certifying WPM for export is one thing. Treating and certification of all domestic WPM is a much bigger and harder to patrol situation.

            WPM suppliers will be concerned about losing their official stamps. Those outside of the program, including packaging users and some underground pallet companies, don’t have as much to lose and could be more likely to ignore any new standard developed by lawmakers in Washington.

             I applaud the efforts of ALSC in overseeing a quality certification program over the last several years. However, I believe the approach used for its export program will simply be too burdensome for domestic packaging, which has become much more reliant on recycled pallets over the past decade.

            The federal government has ultimate responsibility over the requirements for ISPM-15 compliance in the United States. Hopefully, our political leaders will be able to avoid making any new rule that would turn what has been a trickle of cheaters into a flood.

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