In the United States alone, there are around two billion pallets in circulation. The vast majority of these are wooden and are replaced every year. To put that number into perspective, a million seconds is about eleven and a half days. A billion seconds is 32.7 years. Yes, you read that right—years. Because pallets are so extensively used, it’s important to understand their impact on the environment. Fortunately, the percentage of wood pallets being re-purposed or otherwise reused is growing every year. But the ones that aren’t still end up in landfills, where they have a noticeable environmental impact.
Wood products take, on average, thirteen years to decompose in a landfill. This might seem high—isn’t wood biodegradable? After all, it comes from trees, an entirely natural product. But it’s still the number. There are two contributing factors to this number: wood processing and landfill size.
In order to make lumber into useable pallets, the raw wood must be treated. Treating makes the wood more durable and helps prevent bugs, mold, and fungus from making the pallets their home. There are two main types of treatment—heat and chemical. Heat treated pallets are still able to decompose easily, and the heat has little effect beyond preventing pests and bacteria from infesting the pallet. Chemically treated pallets, on the other hand, are treated with methyl bromide, a chemical that successfully stops infestations but is also toxic in high concentrations or quantities for humans. Methyl bromide is one of the chemicals scientists believe to be contributing to the breakdown of the ozone layer, so on top of being dangerous for extensive human handling, these pallets affect the atmosphere when disposed of.
The second big contributing factor to wood’s breakdown time is landfill size. Landfills have been widely used since the 1960’s, and Earth has limited space. Landfills keep getting bigger as we keep generating waste, and they are often overfilled. Because of this, products in landfills—even biodegradable ones like wood or paper—aren’t put in the proper conditions to decompose. Wood needs to be damp to be habitable for fungi that will decompose it, and it’s difficult for wood to remain damp in these conditions. It tends towards either fully wet or fully dry, neither of which are good environments for fungi.
Both of these issues mean that wooden pallets sit in landfills for years, contributing to the size and overfilling of landfills.
According to the EPA, wood made up 8.7% of all American waste sent to landfills in 2017. This might not seem like a large percentage, but they account for eleven categories and the largest reported only had 25% of the overall total. In weight, this comes out to 12,140,000 tons of wood sent to landfills. Of the 8.7%, the organization estimated that wooden pallets made up 90%, making wood pallets around .06% of the total waste sent to landfills in 2017. All of those pallets are still sitting in landfills today.
One of the main reasons it’s difficult to recycle wood pallets is the nails. Wood pallets are generally made with wood boards, which need to be held together somehow. Nails are the obvious solution, but they are difficult to remove from the pallets. If the nails aren’t removed properly, the wood can’t be turned into mulch or kindling, because the metal will mess with either the machines cutting wood or the purpose of the chopped-up wood. So, pallets with difficult to remove nails often go straight to landfills, because removing the nails is too much of a hassle to be worth doing.
Other Impacts of Wood Pallet Waste
Another huge environmental impact of wood pallet waste is deforestation. Since wood pallets are widely used and replaced, the demand remains high and there is only one place to go: the trees. Wood pallets represent a whopping 50% of America’s hardwood consumption annually. This doesn’t even account for wood imported from other countries, such as Canada. It’s a lucrative market, too, giving the lumber industry somewhere in the area of $6 billion per year. Since the numbers are so favorable for wood pallet production, trees are continually being cut down to produce wood pallets. Wood pallet waste creates demand for new pallets, which in turn leads to deforestation.
Because wood pallets need to be replaced so often, they generate a lot of waste. A good wood pallet can last up to seven trips—not that much for companies with even average shipping demands. This leaves companies needing to purchase new wood pallets regularly, which can put a strain on the finances. It also creates more waste than is necessary by going through wood pallets quickly.
Additionally, your company will most likely have to pay for wood pallets to be picked up to go to landfills, as pallet-friendly dumpsters aren’t really a thing. This will vary depending on where your company is based and how far away it is from the nearest disposing site but is something you should factor into your budget if you use wooden pallets.
With carbon footprints becoming a noteworthy topic, more consumers are looking to avoid contributing to businesses that generate a lot of waste. Sending your pallets to a landfill not only contributes to landfill size and increases the waste problem, it can drive away potential customers too. By looking for alternative ways to dispose of wood pallets—or giving them up altogether—you can keep the customers you already have and might be able to bring in new customers. Wood pallets have many negative impacts on the environment, through landfills and other factors, like deforestation and chemical treatment. If you are concerned about you and your company’s carbon footprint and environmental impact, try looking into alternative pallets. You can start with our variety of plastic pallets. If you have any questions about making the switch or what pallets are best for your company’s needs, please feel free to contact us.