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Ending the Mosaic of Local Laws: Federal Officials Explore Pest Rule Options
Federal officials seek input on domestic wood packaging rule. Review of what a new rule could mean for the industry and your business.

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 10/1/2009

            The prospect of a national treatment requirement for solid wood packaging material (WPM) has been on the discussion board for the last few years. After holding a series of hearings across the country, it looks like the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is moving closer to implementing a new rule. Federal officials have not released any firm details, but it appears that APHIS may require that all domestic wood packaging material (pallets, crates, spools, packaging blocks, dunnage, etc.) comply with ISPM-15, the international voluntary standard that governs international transit.

            The spread of invasive species, particularly the emerald ash borer (EAB) and the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB), have become a major concern for forest health.

            APHIS stated, “These and other plant pests that could be transported interstate by wood packaging material pose a serious threat to U.S. agriculture and to natural, cultivated, and urban forests.”

            Currently, APHIS regulates the movement of logs, lumber and other un-manufactured wood articles due to the presence of specific wood pests such as the Asian longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer within specific areas of the United States. 

            APHIS stated that the artificial spread of these pests is linked to the domestic movement of WPM, which poses a serious threat to U.S. agriculture and forests.  

Positions of Various Key Players

            The National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA) has been lobbying for a national rule requiring all pallets/wood packaging be treated according to ISPM-15, the international standard for wood packaging materials.  In the five years since ISPM-15 was adopted by more than 140 nations, it has proven to be 99.9% effective. A similar level of success can likely be achieved in the United States. 

            Bruce Scholnick, president of the NWPCA, stated his support for a national treatment requirement while deflecting blame for the domestic spread of pests away from wood pallets.

            Scholnick said that firewood not wood packaging material is the major cause of the spread of these exotic wood pests in the United States. He stated, “APHIS has no evidence that wood packaging is the cause of the domestic spread of pests, but our industry is supporting adoption of ISPM-15 because we believe that regulation of some kind is inevitable. It is already the case in 13 states. What our industry is trying to avoid is one set of rules for California and another for Illinois…one set of rules for the Emerald Ash Borer and another for the Asian Gypsy Moth. ISPM-15 has proven to be effective for a myriad of global pests and wood species.”

            The current situation has provided an unfair disadvantage to packaging suppliers in quarantine states where nearby areas do not require treatment which does add cost. Packaging suppliers must keep up-to-date on a complex set of local restrictions.

            Scholnick said, “It is unreasonable for shippers to have their loads blocked by port agents who lack the expertise to identify problematic pests from native species.  This unnecessarily impedes the free flow of interstate commerce – unnecessary because there is a solution – at least where wood packaging is concerned.”

            Paul Chaloux, the national program manager for emergency and domestic programs for APHIS, called the current situation a “mosaic of restrictions…which can lead to confusion.”

            In his remarks at the first hearing, Chaloux made a point to recognize that there are differences between the white wood and rental/ pooled pallet models. This makes one wonder if APHIS is laying the groundwork for a variety of requirements depending on the type of pallet used. While it is true that pool operators tend to have tighter quality control than most white wood players, that doesn’t necessarily mean a pooled pallet is clean and clear of invasive pests. Many of these pests burrow below the surface and may not be visible to human inspection. Creating special exemptions or layers of regulations would give some entities a competitive advantage. Currently, the most common pooled pallets  in the U.S. market are constructed mostly of pine which is not a concern for  the EAB and some other high profile pests. But nobody knows what the future brings. If a national requirement is going to be established, it should consider that the next big threat could come from a tree species that currently is considered a non-factor.

            The reality is that most voices in the debate admit that wood packaging material may be a culprit when it comes to international transit of pests but is not the major driver of domestic concerns. If white wood companies are going to have to jump through possibly unnecessary hoops just for the welfare of the entire industry, why shouldn’t pooled operators, such as CHEP, which have much bigger pockets?

            Scholnick of the NWPCA has been calling for one established rule for all wood pallets. He said, “We would support a national regulatory program consistent with the international program because the state-by-state, piecemeal approach that exists today, is confusing to pallet users and unfair to wood packaging companies in quarantined states.” 

            Based on testimony at the first hearing and the industry grapevine, it appears that not all pallet companies are on board with the idea of a domestic treatment and certification requirement for wood pallets. CHEP was noticeably silent at the first meeting, but it appears that the rental pallet giant is likely doing what it can behind the scenes to reduce the impact of the requirement on its pool as much as possible.

            IFCO, the nation’s largest pallet recycler, called for more proof to demonstrate that a domestic treatment requirement of wood packaging is needed or would accomplish the stated goal. While IFCO did not oppose the concept of universal pallet treatment, its public representative did make a significant point that wooden pallets and containers are not the true issue. IFCO pointed out that the real culprit is firewood. And IFCO brought up the concern that universal heat treatment might be unnecessarily burdensome for smaller pallet companies.

            Scholnick responded to this concern. He said, “In previous meetings between NWPCA and APHIS, concerns were expressed about the ability of small companies to comply.  That same concern arose five years ago when the export rules went into effect.  Here is what happened: the larger companies invested in heat treating equipment.  The smaller companies did not have the capital for such a large expenditure, but they were able to purchase heat treating services economically – often from their closest competitor.” 

            LeRoi Cochran, business analyst and public spokesperson for IFCO, said, “This proposed rule would likely force smaller companies to close their doors…Where we struggle is understanding the science behind the call of this regulation. We need to move away from speculation and anecdotal stories.”

            Cochran pointed to the EAB and its spread around the country as proof that the prime culprit is not wood pallets or packaging. He said that the current spread patterns do not match current supply chain patterns involving WPM.

The Firewood Dilemma

            IFCO made many very valid points. Without a real concerted effort to stop the spread of untreated firewood, a rule on WPM would make little difference in the fight to stop the spread of invasive species around the country. APHIS held a meeting on the firewood issue in Washington D.C. after the meeting on WPM. It was interesting that most of the wood pallet contingent left and did not stay to see what would come of the firewood problem.

            Having attended both meetings, it is clear that the firewood industry is way behind the pallet industry in terms of being able to institute any kind of domestic treatment and certification problem. There is no major firewood industry association. There is very little coordination or interaction among firewood suppliers, which are even more scattered and disjointed than wood pallet and packaging companies.

            There are a handful of larger players in the firewood market. Most are small, rural businesses with little sophistication or awareness of the havoc that their products can make on the forests.

            Chaloux said, “Firewood is often made from the highest risk material.” Although an appropriate use of dying or down trees, the reality is that it may contain pests and is likely to be spread across state lines by unsuspecting private citizens.

            Geoff Friedman, president of Lost Coast Forest Products, operates one of the largest packaged firewood companies in the country serving retailers nationwide. Geoff said at the first hearing, “This problem with firewood is ravaging our forests.”

            Unlike the pallet and wood packaging industries, which have the ISPM-15 standard for international transit, the firewood industry has no treatment standards or certification agencies. Treatment times can range widely depending on the firewood material and arrangement of the wood in the treatment chamber. Pallets are easier to ensure consistency from load to load.


Recycled Pallet Concerns

            The NWPCA is requesting that a less restrictive requirement be made for how to treat repaired pallets. Instead of retreating the entire pallet (the current practice), the NWPCA believes that repairing with properly treated lumber should be allowed. Canada and many other countries follow this practice.

            Scholnick said at the first hearing on WPM, “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.”

            Scholnick added, “APHIS has ultimate responsibility for this program and we would ask that this crucial issue be resolved and harmonized for both domestic and international practices.”

            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.

            Keeping the status quo in terms of U.S. heat treatment rules could significantly impact pallet users and recyclers if a national treatment law is enacted. Pallet users that have grown accustomed to on-site repair would have to put some sort of treatment capacity on site at distribution centers. Pallet users have been noticeably silent on the issue because many of them are just starting to learn about the potential impacts of existing rules if applied across the nation.

Why Not Just Mandate Plastic?

            As expected, iGPS, all-plastic pallet rental company, called for the use of more plastic pallets as a solution to the pest issues.

            James Anderson, general counsel for iGPS, said, “We at iGPS believe that substituting plastic pallets for wood pallets wherever feasible would maximize protection to U.S. forests against the spread of invasive pests and deforestation, as well as maximize protection to the environment and the U.S. food supply. Wood pallets are an environmentally destructive, outmoded shipping and storage system whose value has been outstripped by advances in plastic pallet technology.”

            iGPS contends that plastic pallets beat out wood on “all environmental criteria including ozone depletion and global warming.” 

            Anderson blamed deforestation on wood pallets by pointing to the amount of wood used to produce them. He didn’t really address the fact that using trees can actually be good for the environment or that pallets are proper use for low value wood that may otherwise go to waste. He didn’t really talk about the environmental or geopolitical ramification of the chemical and petroleum need to make plastic pallets. Both types of pallets have their pluses and minuses. It is simply a shame that the environmental card gets played at all when it comes to pallets because neither material is perfect from an ecological perspective although a strong case can be made for wood as the more environmentally friendly option.

            Anderson said that about 20% of all land filled wood waste comes from pallets. He added that the decay this waste produces includes, among other things, methane which is a significantly more damaging greenhouse gas than even CO2. What he failed to mention is that new data points to the amount of wood going into landfills as significantly dropping over the last ten years. The pallet recycling industry has ensured that wood gets reused as often as possible and that the material at the end of its life gets turned into some kind of product or is used for energy production. Wood pallets may be the most recycled product in everyday industrial use in this country.

            A number of concerned college students started off the first public hearing in Washington D.C. by espousing the environmental benefits of plastic over wood. What is interesting is that their talking points seemed to mirror the testimony given later in the morning by Anderson of iGPS. They even used some of the same misinformed statistics that Anderson quoted.

            Tom Martin, a college student from North Carolina, recounted a sad timber story when he talked about mountains near his home being “shaved by these timber companies.” While these students spoke with passion, they seemed to be using wrong or old facts. Martin commented that 2/3s of wood pallets are only used for one-way transit, which wrongly implies that these pallets are used only once, which is seldom the case. The Nature Conservancy, which is an environmental group committed to land preservation, took a very pragmatic perspective by supporting ISPM-15 adoption for domestic WPM.


Insert Your Voice

            Federal authorities are currently seeking input from anyone with a point to make on either a domestic treatment rule for WPM and/or firewood treatment. Now is your opportunity to state your case. APHIS also wants information on alternative treatments to methyl bromide.

            Consideration will be given to comments received on or before Oct. 26.  You may submit comments by either of the following methods:

            • Federal eRulemaking Portal:  Go to http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocketDetail

&d=APHIS-2009-0016 to submit or view comments and to view supporting and related materials electronically.

            • Postal Mail/Commercial Delivery:  Please send two copies of your comment to Docket No. APHIS-2009-0016, Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8, 4700 River Road, Unit 118, Riverdale, MD 20737-1238.  Please state that your comment refers to Docket No. APHIS-2009-0016.




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