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Markets in Transition: Pallet LCA: Pallet Users First Need to Look into the Mirror
Columnist, Rick LeBlanc, covers the hidden challenges of conducting life cycle analysis on pallets and focuses on a recent study emerging from Europe.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 12/1/2012

                The European Pallet Association (EPAL) recently announced the results of a life cycle analysis (LCA) that found the wood EPAL pallet to have an environmental impact much smaller than that of a plastic pallet. The research, conducted by Polytechnic of Milan, concluded that when considering the combined impact of carbon emissions and the use of soil and fossil fuels an EUR/EPAL exchangeable pallet has an impact five times smaller than a plastic pallet. The study found that the timber used in a single pallet would have absorbed from the atmosphere 18.4kg of carbon. This material is stored and kept out of the atmosphere until the end of the pallet’s useful life.

                “The use of wooden materials in combination with a proper end-of-life technology which re-uses wood waste (mainly to produce particle boards), helps remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere for a very long time,” commented Professor John Dotelli, a principle researcher on the pallet study. 

                “An increase in the recycling efficiency of wood packaging waste would further improve the environmental benefit coming from the use of wooden materials. This is especially true for Italy where the amount of recycled wooden materials could be further increased.”

                In spite of this continued good news about reusable wooden pallets and sustainability, it seems like there is still a significant degree of confusion in the marketplace. Competing products continue to jostle to get the best public image on the sustainability issue. Plastic pallet studies say that plastic pallets are more sustainable, and so on. I asked Dr. Dotelli what he thought of these mixed messages.

                “The real concern, in my personal view, obviously is not about the results, but about the so-called boundaries chosen to realize the study. As you highlighted, different studies used different life scenarios for the pallet and that obviously may affect greatly the outcomes, although you could not say that there has been something wrong in the study,” said Dotelli. Moreover, in LCA analysis there are technicalities that are not so easily perceived by the occasional reader, and behind these there may be the explanation of the differences in results.”

                The big secret is that each study uses its own assumptions. By changing the number of trips a pallet will make in its life or other key factors, you can impact the outcome. Another consideration is the distance that a pallet has to travel. This is where some of the new tracking technologies and software will drive environmental innovation.

                The most important thing is to ensure that you use a durable, lightweight solution that can be reused a lot before repair. That is why skimping on pallet quality at the start is one of the worse things you can do for the environment.

                The issue of different life scenarios for competing products is a concern raised in a new Australian academic review of pallet lifecycle studies. It looks at the recent rash of plastic pallet theft in California, for example, and questions how that might impact assumptions about plastic pallet life.

                In another report, a 2010 study for National Wooden Pallet & Container Association, Charles Ray and Judd Michael cautioned about the use of life cycle studies in promoting the benefits of wood pallets:  “…we believe that supply chain system modeling and comparative analysis of wood, plastic, or other alternative pallet platforms, to determine their true environmental impact and sustainability, is impossible until verifiable data of the specific pallet production processes is available through standardized and reviewed data collection methodology. We also believe that the only way to obtain such data is under the guidance and review of an accredited scientific body. Lacking such, the wooden pallet industry may be largely ineffective in its response to this situation due to the emotional reaction of many consumers and, importantly, pallet buyers, to the suggestion of trees being cut down for the production of pallets.”

                The roofing industry has just moved towards such an accredited oversight of competing LCA claims, similar to the approach recommended in 2010 by Judd and Chuck. For roofing products, this will be accomplished through the oversight of ASTM, one of the largest international standards bodies.

                “The ASTM International program will provide scientifically-based, quantifiable information about product parameters such as resource consumption and ozone depletion, which will give both businesses and consumers an understanding of a product’s real impact on the environment,” said Timothy Brooke, ASTM International’s vice president of certification, training and proficiency testing.

                Getting back to one of the other key points from the NWPCA study, the emotional reaction of consumers and pallet buyers to trees being cut down, perhaps this is an issue best addressed by education about the reality of successful reforestation. Using wood is the best way to ensure that landowners continue to grow trees. Also, the simple, less energy intensive process of milling sustainable timber and manufacturing wooden pallets combined with effective recycling remains a very green way to do business.

                Dotelli commented that wooden materials in general have a far more simple industrial production process, especially if you consider polymer-based products. This means the LCA cost to procure the raw materials and process it tends to be greater for plastic or metal when compared to wood.

                Dotelli said, “People can perceive this low-profile industrial process as much more sustainable than a complex industrial system and this should be stressed by wooden pallet suppliers.”

                At the end of the day, the fierce competitiveness of the marketplace is inevitably going to lead to confusion, and I suppose that’s just life. Decision makers must remeber that there is more to sustainability than merely a procurement decision. Supply chain management is complicated, and a number of variables go into determining what type of pallet is most sustainable in a specific application.

                While getting procurement right is important, in the case of pallets, management counts. The most sustainable pallets just might be the ones that are most sustainably handled and managed by pallet users or providers for repeated reuse, whether plastic, wood, or other material. For customers looking for sustainable solutions – a good place to start is to look into the mirror.


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