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Letter from Ed: Pallet Recycling Around the Globe
Recycling will continue to grow around the world as the pallet industry provides new and better services that wrap themselves into recycled products.
By Edward C. Brindley
Date Posted: 8/1/2007
Over my thirty years of working with the pallet industry, I have watched recycling expand around the world. More than new pallet manufacturing, recycling offers a glimpse into the differences in our industry, its products, and our opportunities. When I was introduced to pallets in 1977, not many pallet companies were involved in recycling. Now the pallet industry is deluged with recycling, at least in North America. In other parts of the world, recycling varies widely. Even where it is not a major part of the market, however, it is become more and more important.
First, it is easier to recycle and fix the stringer pallets that dominate the North American scene. In the early days of pallet recycling, it was nowhere near as common in Europe as it was in North America. Block pallets, which are more difficult to repair, dominate the reusable European pallet scene. While the Europeans have repaired Europallets and CHEP pallets for years, they continue to be less involved with recycling than the North American market.
The common acceptance of the 48x40 stringer footprint in the U.S. and Canada laid the groundwork for pallet recycling. It was easier for recycling to blossom where specifications were less strict and many pallet sizes could be recycled into useable 40” and 48” cut stock. The concept of combo pallets and remanufactured pallets developed in North America.
Many readers are aware that Europe is generally considered to be on the forefront of recycling and the green revolution. In spite of that, the pallet industry in Europe is still playing catch-up ball to the North America industry. Europe seems to be leading us when it comes to reusable packaging, but our disposable society lends itself to recycling North American style where we have so many specifications and such a penchant for paying less for a pallet. Our markets are price driven, whereas the European markets are focused more heavily on quality and maintaining their pallet pools.
One of the things that I have learned from my international travels and reading about pallets from around the world, is that reusable packaging practices lend themselves to some interesting value-added recycling opportunities. I suggest that my North American pallet friends examine your customers and dare to think outside of the usual packaging box. There may be recycling alternatives that were missed in the past.
During my recent New Zealand trip, it became obvious that their pallet industry is doing very little pallet recycling as we know it in the U.S. But reusable packaging offers value-added recycling alternatives that might not be on most U.S. pallet companies’ radar screens. Timpack, featured in our last issue, washes and recycles large pallets for the milk industry that have to be sanitized between uses. What a great idea! It provides the dairy industry with a high quality reusable shipping product.
Both Wecks and Timpack in New Zealand specialize in manufacturing and recycling reusable, collapsible, returnable bins for vegetables and fruit. These bin pools offer management alternatives that serve as an example to our industry. Bins can be assembled using hardware, such as that offered by Hardy-Graham, disassembled when they reach their intended destination, sometimes half way around the world, and shipped back in a knocked-down form to be reused again. They can require both repairs and sanitation as well as logistics services. Wooden containers seem to be more common for shipping in many other parts of the world than they are in North America, but they may offer an attractive future for pallet companies that focus on available options.
In many parts of the world, such as South Africa (article to appear in a future Pallet Enterprise), the pallet industry is in an earlier stage than it is in the U.S., Canada, and most of Europe. They have much to learn about using both pallets and pallet recycling effectively. Recycling is still in its infancy in many parts of the world. Varying transit distances and distribution inequalities have served to restrict palletization and recycling. The manufacturing and supply world is changing so rapidly, however, that the spread of pallets and containers seems inevitable.
In many less developed parts of the world, the availability of pallet cores is different than it is in more developed countries. People there often use wood for fuel and construction ranging from houses to animal enclosures. In less developed countries, cores are often used for things that are not an issue in more industrialized countries. In infant markets, pallet cores may be available free or for a small fee. But as a recycled market develops, pallet cores become a more expensive raw material for recyclers.
Pallet recycling can be profitable. In its early stages, its profit can often overshadow the profits of manufacturing. Early movers often make the highest profits; like any product, recycled pallets and containers get more competitive as the market develops.
Pallet and container pools offer potentials for our industry that are largely untapped in many of today’s markets. For these potentials to be realized, recycling is likely to form the core to collect, clean, repair, store, and redistribute pooled pallets and containers. Pallet recyclers are more likely to have multiple locations to serve as recycling depots. Forming networks of recyclers can expand a depot network to better serve a customer base.
The key to successful recycling is examining all of the options that can help customers deliver and store their products. Listen to what your customers say. But beyond that, look carefully at what they really need. They too may not think outside of the box because they do not realize what the options could be. After all, they are not in the wooden packaging business. Our products exist to assist them in providing the products and services that constitute their businesses. They know their businesses, not ours.
The wooden pallet and container industry stands to succeed by providing solutions that are as good or better than those of the past. How can we use wooden packaging products, shipping and logistics options, returnable systems, repairable products, and innovative services to improve upon what may be typically available today? In the future, successful wooden packaging options may well rest in how well we use recycling and reusable product concepts to better serve our customers.
Just a few years ago many wooden pallet and box manufacturers viewed recycling as a poor stepchild to manufacturing. The future promises that recycling will continue to spread around the world as the industry provides new and better services that wrap themselves into recycled products. Yes, recycling is not a stepchild. It may well be the stepping stone to tomorrow’s success.