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99 Percent Invisible: Wooden Pallets Carry Environmental Costs Along with Their Loads

Logging, invasive insects are the problem

Consider for a moment the humble wood pallet. It is so ubiquitous that it’s all but invisible. It is so plainly constructed – of raw wood and nails – that most people never give it a second glance.

Yet the wood pallet is one of the workhorses of our global economy, a key part of the system that moves just about every product you touch. Combined with a hydraulic forklift, the wood pallet is the essential platform for transporting goods from warehouses to store shelves.

Given the wood pallet’s universality, it shouldn’t be surprising that the pallet carries with it a significant environmental burden. For starters, there is the pallet’s incredible use of forest resources. And once put into service, pallets and shipping containers can change the ecological balance of entire continents.  Despite the best intentions – and possibly the worst negligence or deceit of companies– they are responsible for transporting invasive insects that are destroying entire tree species in North America, causing billions of dollars' worth of damage to the environment.

photo of a man moving goods on a wooden palletphoto by Toyota Material Handling EU, on Flickr

A staggering quantity of timber is converted into pallets. According to Hardwood Market Reports, wooden pallets – along with wooden shipping containers – consume 44 percent of all the hardwood produced in the US annually, up from 35 percent 13 years ago. In 2012 about 450 million pallets  – each using about 15 board feet of lumberwere manufactured in the United States, says Philip Araman, a leading forest products researcher for the US Forest Service.

Now, it’s important to understand that the logging industry isn’t cutting down trees just to make pallets. Pallet wood is worth about one-tenth the value of high-quality veneer wood, Araman says. The most valuable hardwood trees – one that are straight, tall and have few knots –would be cut down anyway. The best wood from those trees is used for furniture and cabinets; the leftover, inferior wood becomes pallet material. Still, many of smaller, spindly trees that are cut down in a clear cut operation are, in fact, cut down specifically to become pallets or converted to pulp or other engineered wood products, such as particleboard.

So, would our forests be better off we stopped churning out wooden pallets? Depends who you ask. The US Forest Service insists that the level of logging is sustainable. According to its Forest Inventory and Analysis, the number of trees in US forests increases by about 3 percent each year, while about 2 percent of trees are removed, for a net growth in the number of trees.This growth is reflected in the EPA Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, which reports that the amount of carbon dioxide offset by US forests has increased during the past 20 years due to forest regeneration.

Yet the impact of pallets on local ecological systems varies from place to place. Some forests are managed better than others. Poor forest management practices reduce biodiversity and degrade wildlife habitat. “The quality of forest management drives the level of restoration or destruction in the forested environment,” says  Brad Kahn of the Forest Stewardship Council, which sets standards and certifies forests that are responsibly managed.

In general, less demand for wood products would require less of a need to cut down trees. If pallets were repaired and re-used more efficiently, some deforestation would be avoided. The good news is that the shipping and warehouse industries are making strides in pallet re-use. The Forest Service’s Araman estimates that nearlyhalf of all pallets purchased have been repaired and recycled. The pallet industry also promotes “pooling” as a cost-saving way to reduce the need for new pallets: companies can rent pallets that are eventually returned to a central location to be repaired and reused. Think of it as the corporate version of the sharing economy.

While the pallet industry and retailers try to re-use more pallets, the pallet carries another environmental risk: invasive insects. Invasive insects’ ecological damage taken can't be overstated. Among the most infamous of these invasive pests are the Asian longhorned beetle, the emerald ash borer, and the redbay ambrosia beetle. “In the last 20 years we've found numerous highly damaging pests that have come in on crates, pallets and wood packaging,” says Faith Campbell, senior policy representative for The Nature Conservancy. 

 “As near as anyone can tell, the emerald ash borer is going to kill nearly all the ashes in North America – that's 16 or 17 species.”

This chronic problem is closely tied in with the workings of the global economy. As we ceaselessly move goods around the world, tiny hitchhikers often hop a ride on the wood pallets. The redbay ambrosia beetle, which was reported first in Savannah, Georgia, has now spread to five other states, including Florida, where it is infecting avocado trees with laurel wilt fungus. The Asian longhorned beetle, known for killing maple trees, is also destroying hardwood trees in 15 different families. “The alarming thing about the Asian longhorned beetle is that it keeps showing up in wood packaging, even though we thought we had eradicated the outbreak,” Campbell says.

There are procedures in place to try to stop the spread of these invasives, but they aren’t always effective. Before pallets or other wood packaging materials can be OK'd for international use, they must be treated to kill any insects that may be on the surface or imbedded in the wood. The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) requires pallets that will cross national borders to be either heat treated (130 degrees F. for 30 minutes) or fumigated with methyl bromide, then marked with the IPPC logo, indicating the type of treatment.  (In addition to being toxic, methyl bromide is a significant ozone depleting substance that mostly has been phased out of use by the Montreal Protocol.  It continues being sprayed on pallets and wooden packaging under a critical use exemption.)

How do the insects survive the heat treatment or pesticide? Campbell says the insects haven't developed any new resistance: The fault lies with the companies that are supposed to be complying with international law. Some of the breaches are unintentional – the result of faulty fumigation or uneven heating of the wood. But Campbell says she has also seen forgeries of the required stamps on crates, proving that some pallet manufacturers are cutting corners.

Once an invasive insect lands in North America, it has an easy time moving from state to state. Pallets that travel within the United States are not required to be heat treated or fumigated. “There's no reason to think US-made packaging doesn’t have pests in it,” Campbell says.

Government officials at one time considered requiring all pallets in the US to be treated, even if they were just being used domestically, but the idea never gained traction. The Nature Conservancy’s Campbell, who is part of the Continental Dialogue of Non-Native Forest Insect Pests and Diseases, pins her hopes on a combination of technology and education. Personally, she would like to see the industry shift from unprocessed wood to what’s called “oriented strand wood.” Consisting of long strands of wood held together with synthetic resin, OSB resists wood-boring insects. Its main drawback is that it would be extremely difficult to get an international agreement because of the increased costs. In the meantime, education can help. Government officials in Canada, the US and Mexico are trying to arrange workshops with counterparts in China and other Asian nations to reduce the movement of insects across borders.

Plastic pallets are another option that could stop invasive insects and possibly shrink the ecological footprint of wooden pallets. Insects can't bore into them, so they don't require any fumigation; their lighter weight reduces the use of fossil fuel; and they can be manufactured from recycled plastic. However, their higher initial costs has limited their penetration of the pallet market to about 5 percent. All of which means that, at least for the foreseeable future, the environmental problems associated with wood pallets will likely persist.

Jack Wax
Jack Wax is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Missouri. His focus is the environment and agriculture.

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I’m sorry, but I am not versed in the environmental impact of corrugated pallets.  I would imagine that the processing involved would complicate the issue further, so that the impact may be even more difficult to determine. 

Thanks for the kind words regarding my response!

By Brad Gething on Fri, March 28, 2014 at 6:35 am

Great report.
Heve you analyzed the alternative of Cardboard pallets? Are this option more “green” than wood?


By Leonel Honorato on Tue, March 11, 2014 at 3:06 pm

I could not include my references in the form field, but if anyone would like them please contact me and I would be happy to do so.

By Brad Gething on Mon, February 03, 2014 at 1:51 pm

We are not just growing more trees; we are doing so in a much more environmentally-conscious manner.  I appreciate Mr. Wax helping raise the profile of the important contributions our industry makes to sustainably managing U.S. forests.

Any relevant discussion on sustainability issues also includes recycling.  The recycling of wood pallets has increased dramatically over the past 30 years - when we started recycling before recycling was cool.  In 1992, recycled material represented 13% of the total wood used in pallets; that number increased to 41% in 2006 and today’s figures are estimated to be around 60% [5].  The industry makes very efficient use of all wood material. What doesn’t get reused to build or repair pallets gets ground up for mulch or animal bedding, or now is increasingly used to produce wood pellets. Because of our success in managing waste streams, it has been estimated that only one-quarter of one percent of wood material now makes its way to a landfill [6].  Through emerging technology and new markets our industry is moving ever closer to our target of zero-waste.

Not only has wood packaging reduced lumber usage through recycling, but improved pallet engineering and design has led to increased efficiency through the use of a computational software program called the Pallet Design System™ or PDS™.  With PDS, a pallet maker can customize a pallet for a specific load, thereby reducing the amount of wood used per pallet, and improving the overall environmental life-cycle footprint of wood packaging.

In addition to wanting the preservation of trees for their beauty and contribution to the global atmospheric carbon cycle, the wood packaging industry also has an obvious commercial interest in the health of the forest.  The industry has been a strong proponent of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), and is an active participant in domestic, North American, and international organizations whose focus is mitigating the spread of invasive insects across the United States and the globe.  It is not exactly clear how many insect introductions have been caused by infested wood versus insects stowing away in the cargo.  However, we are continually striving to ensure that an increasingly globalized market does not include passports for pests.
A discussion about the use of alternative materials in the packaging industry is extremely complex, ongoing, and beyond the scope of this response (but suffice it to say there are serious tradeoffs in any decision).

Research performed by Bilbao et al. and Bhattacharjya and Kleine-Moellhoff [7,8] should be consulted to better understand the environmental factors concerning alternative materials. While Mr. Wax seems to focus on just the weight of the pallet, in her Master’s thesis [9], Bilbao analyzes a more comprehensive environmental impact (in terms of CO2 emissions) via a life cycle analysis, and in almost every situation analyzed, a wooden pallet is a better option. This study does not include source or waste management issues (which can be an issue for the vast majority of fossil fuel-based plastic pallets).  Most if not all plastic pallets are made from polymers which can only be recycled a finite number of times before it becomes unusable.  Upon disposal it does not degrade – plastic waste that finds its way to a landfill is there forever.  Wood, on the hand, is a natural, renewable material that is entirely biodegradable (just try finding the wood mulch you placed in your flower beds last year).
I believe that as stewards of this planet we have a shared responsibility to continually scrutinize our activity and ensure that we minimize environmental impact.  For this reason, I applaud the efforts of Mr. Wax to explore the effects of using wood for transport packaging.  I strongly believe that when the facts are analyzed and other transport packaging options are fully explored, wood wins.

Brad Gething, PhD.

Technical Manager, National Wooden Pallet and Container Association

By Brad Gething on Mon, February 03, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I would like to thank Mr. Wax for drawing attention to the very important issue of the health of our forests and their sustainability. The wooden packaging industry takes seriously the role we play in environmental conservation and share Mr. Wax’s ideals of a growing and healthy forest environment with responsible global trade.
I was pleased to see that Mr. Wax reported that the number of trees is increasing in the United States, and the growth is truly astounding.  We have twice as many hardwoods in the U.S. as we had in 1953 [1], and we currently plant more softwood trees than are removed for production in every region of the U.S. [2].  Regardless of these facts, the most profound statistic regarding the state of U.S. forests is that number one source of deforestation is not logging for wood production, but urban development [3].

But, solely looking at the overall growing population of trees doesn’t tell the entire story.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), through the Forestry Resources Assessment Program, monitors the world’s forests and their management on a regular basis. The last assessment was performed in 2010 and can be found via the following link:  The United States report [4] reveals that between 1987 and 2007:
•  Forest area under an overall management plan increased by 12%
•  Forest area under a sustainable management increased by 28%
•  Forest area designated for conservation of biodiversity increased by 7.5%

By Brad Gething on Mon, February 03, 2014 at 1:48 pm

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