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Liking the Look of Used
Rick LeBlanc takes a look at the recycling industry.

By Rick Leblanc
Date Posted: 5/1/2001

Last month marked three years since the pallet industry probably got its most unfair — and worst — report card of all time. The now infamous April Fool’s Day article in the Wall Street Journal vilified wood pallets — particularly used, weathered-looking ones that accumulated behind loading docks or otherwise had become "palleta non grata." One particular quote sticks in my head, a comment from a pallet user lamenting that wood pallets "breed like rabbits." A few other major newspapers published similar, negative articles on wood pallets as many people in the pallet industry worked hard to set the story straight.

Research from Virginia Tech indicates that, at the time the Wall Street Journal story was published in 1998, progress was being made to divert pallets from landfills. The research shows a continued reduction in wood pallets arriving at landfills and increased recovery rates for those that did. A 20 million per year decrease in landfilled pallets was measured between 1995 and 1998. According to Virginia Tech’s research, about 178 million pallets were arriving annually at U.S. landfills, with about 38 million of those diverted to other uses, such as mulch or returned to the pool of available pallets. This is a reflection of the continued maturity of the pallet recycling industry.

The single trip pallet is largely a myth, although about half of pallets are perhaps originally manufactured with that intent. According to the NWPCA-Cahners survey, most pallets (96%) are reused; about 46% are used only two to six times while 22% are used more than 20 times.

But recycling has really blossomed, supported by many factors, including a growing customer acceptance and the ongoing development of recycling equipment. Greater interest in reusing recycled components in combo pallets is adding yet another layer to the recovery network.

Perception and customer acceptance of recycled pallets still are concerns for some pallet users. One plant I called recently uses 100% new 48x40 pallets for its industrial products. It insists on new pallets because of the sensitivity of its automated palletizers and powered pallet conveyors. That company is not alone. Several others in the same industry also require new pallets. However, many other plants with similar products and automation have converted to recycled pallets, saving $3 or more per pallet trip. So what gives?

It is important to determine if there really is an automation issue or whether there are simply problems of perception or quality control. There are a couple of typical scenarios. One goes something like this. ‘The customer tried it once, several years ago. The first load arrived but was refused as damaged upon delivery. The pallets never even got off the truck.’ Then there is version number two. ‘The first several loads were okay, but then the customer got a bad load. Pallets jammed. There were significant problems that in their minds outweighed the significant purchase cost savings of switching to recycled, and the conversion was canceled.’

In talking to leading recyclers around the country, a couple of points are worthy of comment. First of all, sales support during the conversion process can be absolutely critical. One recommendation is to have a salesman at the customer’s dock when the first load arrives. Help shape the customer’s expectations.

Some people have conscious or unconscious associations between weathered wood and pallet damage. For these people, recycled pallets don’t stand a chance. These hardwired negative perceptions need to be totally shattered. Wood may be weathered, but it can and should function flawlessly in the application. The salesman wins the purchasing agent over by presenting case studies of similar applications that have succeeded with recycled — at a substantial per-trip saving.

Given the scenarios above, how the first load is handled is critical to the long term success of the relationship. When the first delivery comes, the salesman should work with the customer’s employees to neutralize any biases against weathered wood. He should help show them how to look for specific pallet attributes that will impact performance in the intended application. Another tactic is to arm the purchasing agent with all the anticipated problems so he has the answers on the tip of his tongue when the panic call comes from the dock.

Erasing the second concern, the presumption that there will be a bad load arriving sooner than later, is one that is critical to make the deal work longer term. Pallet recycling has come a long way.

Recyclers today increasingly have formal, sophisticated quality control methods. Through consolidation and networking, they have access to more consistent pallet supply. But sensitive automation is still one of the harshest quality control critics of all. It will ultimately write the recycler’s report card and determine whether or not he achieves a passing grade.

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