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Letter from Ed: Landfill Survey Proves Positive Recycling Story for Wood Pallets
Pallet Recovery Rates: New survey shows that wood pallet recycling rates continue to soar as landfill disposal rates shrink.

By Edward C. Brindley, Jr.
Date Posted: 5/2/2018

Wood pallets have a positive story to tell when it comes to waste and recycling. The industry has known that for years. But it hasn’t always been able to prove that fact.

A new survey on pallet disposal and landfill rates is putting hard data behind what many people suspected. Wood pallets are recycled at a high rate, and the number going into landfills continues to drop. This reality is further bolstered by the growth in upcycling, turning old wood pallets into everything from furniture to art.

The survey was conducted by researchers at Virginia Tech, and it was funded by The Pallet Foundation and U.S. Forest Service.  Researchers sought responses from municipal solid waste landfills (MSW) and construction & demolition (C&D) landfills across the country.

According to the survey, the number of wood pallets heading into landfills had dropped drastically since 1998. Only 25.39 million wooden pallets were landfilled in

MSW and C&D landfills in 2016 compared to 178.5 million landfilled in 1998. See Chart 1. That’s a huge drop due to the growth of the recycling market as well as the use of recycled lumber and combo pallets. In addition, recycled pallets have grown in market acceptance as more are repaired and fewer pallets are truly used once and just thrown away.

Also, more landfills now have capabilities of turning wood waste into usable products. The survey found that 62.4% of the MSW and 45.2% C&D landfills operated wood recovery areas. Those facilities were able to convert old pallets into usable materials 95% of the time. As the amount of pallet material reclaimed goes up, the volume being thrown into the landfill has significantly decreased to only 12.2 million in 2016. Considering the billions of pallets in circulation, that is a really small number headed to the landfills today.

“Data of this kind had not been collected since 1998,” said Dr. Brad Gething, director of science and technology integration for the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA). “The wood packaging sector has long been touting their recyclable efforts for decades, and now the data proves it.” Wood pallets get used, reused, and when they are no longer useful, they are converted to mulch, animal bedding or biofuel.

Wood pallet competitors used to love to show pictures of pallets heading into the landfills as a way to undermine the environmental story of wood pallets. But trends have swung the other direction making wood pallets significantly reused and recycled. And when it comes to total wood waste, pallets make up a miniscule amount of the material thrown into landfills. Respondents claimed that only 1.8% of all wood landfilled by a MSW landfill and 5.6% landfilled by a C&D landfill was wood pallets. Most of the landfilled material was woody yard waste or construction-related waste. See Chart 2.

The numbers don’t lie. Wood pallets are the most recycled packaging materials in the United States. See Chart 3. According to numbers produced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wood pallets are recycled nearly 95% of the time compared to the next highest category, paper and paperboard packaging (about 75% of the time). Notice that plastic packaging is trailing all other categories, being recycled only 15% or so.

 “Our industry is thrilled that the data proves the wood packaging sector, more than any other, is closing in on zero-waste,” said Larry Howell of Cottondale Wood Products and chair of the NWPCA. “Wood pallets are 100% recyclable, and the newest research from Virginia Tech shows that our industry has the highest recovery rate at 95%, compared to other prevalent materials.”

Even with the number of junk or below #2 grade pallets on the market growing, the industry has done a good job dealing with scrap. It has developed ways to dispose of or upcycle the waste into other products that has minimized landfill dumping. At a time when junk pallets abound, 76% of landfills said that the total number of pallets being dumped has stayed the same; 4% reported an average 2% increase and 12% reported an average 39% decrease. Keep in mind that in 1998, these numbers demonstrated that 27% of landfills experienced an average 21% increase.

The survey project was developed by Zack Shiner with assistance from Virginia Tech faculty including Laszlo Horvath, Phil Araman and Robert Smith.

This survey demonstrates the positive message that wood pallets has when it comes to municipal waste and landfill disposal. More wood pallets are being reused and recovered than ever before. Learn more about the research at https://www.palletcentral.com/landfillavoidance/

Now that we have the data to prove it, the industry needs to be sharing this good news early and often.

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Pallet Recovery Rates