A Whopping Ninety-Five Percent of Wooden Pallets are Recycled, Studies Show
By Laszlo Horvath, PhD, Brad Gething, PhD, and Phil Araman
Over the past two years, NWPCA has been engaging with Virginia Tech and the USDA Forest Service on two cooperative research projects, with the aim of collecting survey data related to the wooden pallet industry (Industry Market Survey), as well as the prevalence and disposal of wood pallets at landfill sites (Landfill Avoidance Survey). Both projects have been performed in the past, providing an opportunity to analyze the results in a historical context.
Researchers from Virginia Tech presented the results of the two studies during the NWPCA 2018 Annual Leadership Conference in March. In this article, we’ll summarize the major findings of the studies. The results of these studies will be submitted to peer reviewed journals for publication, and NWPCA will be informing PalletCentral readers of their availability for reference.
Industry Market Survey
- Only 1.8% of all wood landfilled by a MSW landfill and 5.6% landfilled by a C&D landfill were wood pallets
- Only 25.39 million wooden pallets were landfilled in MSW and C&D landfills in 2016 compared to 178.5 million landfilled in 1998.
- 62.4% of the MSW and 45.2% C&D landfills operated wood recovery areas
- 95% pallets were recovered into usable materials.
The industry market study surveyed both manufacturers and recyclers of wood pallets, as well as brokers, asking several questions related to production, material usage, and other business practices related to the 2016 fiscal year.
The size of the overall industry shows that an estimated 849 million pallets (508 million new and 341 million recycled) were produced in 2016. In comparison to 2011 (the last year of recorded data), these estimations represent a 14% growth in overall production, with a 22% and 5% growth in new and recycled production, respectively. These numbers reflect the continued growth that has occurred through the years as the economy continues to pick up after the 2008 downturn.
Lumber usage between hardwood and softwood are estimated at 4.1 and 5.0 billion board feet of hardwood and softwood lumber used for pallet production in 2016, for a ratio of 45% hardwood and 55% softwood. The hardwood market continues to recover from the 2008 downturn, but softwood appear to remain the more popular material for pallet manufacture at this point.
Overall, the production estimates represent approximately 43% and 15% of total hardwood and softwood lumber produced in the U.S., respectively.
The popularity of the most typical pallet footprints indicates a similar trend seen in prior studies. The 48x40 pallet (35% of pallets) is the most popular dimensional pallet, and by a wide margin, but the predominant pallet size is the “other” category, indicating that custom pallets (39% of pallets) are the most widely used pallets in the U.S. When compared to prior studies, the difference between these two categories is smaller, which suggests that the industry may be becoming more standardized that it has in the past. Click to read related charts..
Landfill Avoidance Survey
In this landfill avoidance study, both municipal and solid waste (MSW) and construction and demolition (C&D) landfill facilities were surveyed to better understand how pallets were being handled at these facilities. Data of this kind had not been collected since 1998.
When studying this topic, it is important to understand that there is a distinction between what material arrives versus what material enters the landfill. Limited space and a desire to be more waste efficient has driven many of these facilities to sort and recover certain types of waste. Given the biodegradable nature of wood and wood pallets, they are a prime candidate for this type of activity. The results of the study indicate that since 1998, facilities have increased their wood and wood pallet recovery areas. For MSW facilities, this number increased from 33% to 62% of facilities, while for C&D facilities, the number increased from 27% to 45%. Furthermore, reports revealed that non-treated wood and wood pallets are used as top-cover material for the landfill, utilizing this biodegradable material for a sustainable solution.
The overall presence of wood pallets at MSW and C&D landfill facilities has also significantly decreased, both in the number of pallets arriving and ultimately being landfilled. For both MSW and C&D facilities, the number of entering the landfill reduced from 178.5 million to 25 million which could be attributed to the increased environmental awareness of companies and the emerging zero landfill policies that prevent companies to send packaging materials to landfills. Meanwhile, the number of separated and recycled pallets increased from 38 million to 41 million which means that landfills see an opportunity in recovering and recycling wood pallets into value adding products such as mulch, repaired pallets, or biofuel.
The production estimate of new pallets from the Market Survey can be combined with the Landfill estimates above to reveal an overall recycling rate for wood pallets. For 2016, it was estimated that 508 million new pallets were manufactured, and 25 million pallets were landfilled (13 million at MSW and 12 million at C&D facilities), resulting in a recycling rate of 95%. This number was compared to other prominent materials, which demonstrates the superior recycling rate of wood pallets.
Research on the wood pallet industry and landfill avoidance was conducted in collaboration with three prominent groups: Virginia Tech, National Wooden Pallet & Container Association, and the U.S. Forest Service. The respective staff leads who provided oversight and co-authored this article are: Laszlo Horvath, PhD, Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech; Brad Gething, PhD, Director of Science and Technology Integration, NWPCA; Phil Araman, Research Team Leader, U.S. Forest Service.
NWPCA would like to thank the hundreds of industry members who volunteered to take part in the survey, as well as the NWPCA Science and Technology Advisory Council and task group volunteers who contributed greatly to the development of the surveys. We would also like to recognize the efforts of Virginia Tech graduate students Nathan Gerber and Zach Shiner, and the guidance and insight provided by Phil Araman of the USDA Forest Service.
This research was funded in part by The Pallet Foundation and the USDA Forest Service. The ongoing support of impactful research related to the wood pallet industry is greatly appreciated.
Click for referenced charts. Direct other inquiries to Annette Ferri, NWPCA Vice President of Communication
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