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By Esme Neely Smith

The world’s largest privately-held spirits company and parent to many top shelf adult beverages, Bacardi Limited, is also looking to be a world leader in sustainability. Wood pallets can play a role in that ambitious program.

As Bacardi and other companies around the world look to improve their environmental footprints as well as maintain – and boost – their bottom lines, many are moving towards lighter-weight materials to reduce packaging and shipping costs. That can mean wood pallets are expected to shoulder an even heavier load – that of better protecting the goods.

Larry Howell, President of Cottondale Wood Products, Tosco Wood Products and Hinton Lumber Products in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said sustainability has long been an issue in the wood pallet industry. More recently, he added, pallets companies are paying even more attention to the idea because their customers are demanding attention to sustainability in both the wood species used and how the product is designed.

Ralph Rupert, Manager of Unit-Load Technology at Millwood, Inc., of Vienna, Ohio, added that the industry’s environmental stewardship talk took a more visible turn among companies over the last decade or so, but especially in 2009 when Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, created its Sustainability Index to track its three sustainability goals which include being supplied by 100 percent renewable energy.

“Sustainability is an issue we are constantly facing as our customers keep bringing it up as well and develop their own sustainability programs,” Rupert added. “Wood pallets are already a very sustainable product. They are renewable, they are ‘green’ energy and they already meet many of the goals people are talking about.”

Bacardi rolled out its “Good Spirited: Building a Sustainable Future” program in February on the 152nd anniversary of the founding of the company. The program launched globally and covers more than 150 markets where Bacardi sells its brands. It touches everything from manufacturing and bottling down to the welfare of each employee.

“Our goal is to return to the environment at least as much as we take away,” said Eric Kraus, a Bacardi senior vice president who leads the company’s corporate social responsibility initiatives. “We are setting a sustainability standard for others in the spirits industry to follow.”

Since 2006, Bacardi has reduced packaging weight by more than 7 percent. That is equivalent to 23,000 tons, which is enough to fill a small cargo ship. The new program’s goal is to improve that weight reduction to 10 percent by 2017 and 15 percent by 2022. Those goals include Bacardi collaborating with partner glass and paper suppliers to make more environmentally friendly packaging.

However, the ambitious Bacardi environmental initiative has yet to completely figure the weight or role of wood pallets into their good environmental steward processes.

“The Good Spirited sustainability program does not specifically address pallets as pallets are a ‘constant’ to us,” said Dave Howson, Global Sustainability Director. “(This means that pallets) are reused by different companies so we do not consider them as packaging waste as such and do not factor them into our packaging weight reduction targets. However, the pallet footprint is very important to us (i.e. -- how many boxes we can fit on each pallet to try and reduce the need for excess pallets and therefore trucks on the road) and so we factor this into the design of our pack development projects as part of our sustainable packaging principles.”

Howson added that Bacardi uses both purchased ("one-way") and leased wood pallets as well as the closed loop system of the wooden pallets owned and used by its global glass suppliers. The company does reuse pallets as much as possible, and when they are no longer useable, they return them to their suppliers for repair or repurposing.

All this lighter-weight packaging does not change the way we use pallets, Howson added. What might change, however, is the job those pallets do for their products.

“As companies work on their sustainability platforms and reduce packaging, there is a lot of value in (pallets),” Millwood’s Rupert said. “Unfortunately as companies get to that point, (pallets are) often overlooked. The reality is, they play a more crucial role in product protection.”

At Cottonwood, Howell added, “In the pallet industry, more companies are looking at the entire load rather that individual components. For instance, can we add a board here to reduce a piece of cardboard there, for example?”

With that in mind, the pallet industry is becoming more technologically savvy and is working on better designs to meet the challenges and changing needs of lighter-weight packaging. Some of those changes include the amount of wood going into pallets and making pallets more customized to individual industries. There is also software available to test the load-bearing properties of pallets.

“We test how a pallet interacts with the product and we test how a pallet affects load distribution,” Rupert said. “This is unit-load technology. It means the industry is becoming more specialized – not just for size but for other performance aspects as well.”

The biggest part of the pallet industry is making them customized for clients, Rupert added. For example, he added, there are 105 pallet designs for the refractory brick industry alone. And in the retail business there is a whole realm of different 48 by 40 pallets.

“Pallets are playing a more crucial role in product protection and design has a more crucial role in how a pallet is used,” Rupert said. “The pallet industry is changing and working on better designs to meet the changing needs as light weighting occurs. People are recognizing that a pallet is not just a pallet.”

Esme Neely Smith is a freelance writer and photographer in Annapolis, MD. She has previously written on numerous topics including boating, education, real estate, retailing, business and the environment. She can be reached at