With so many products and commodities surrounding us every single day, we often lose sight of the true value of these items. We look at the sticker price and compare it to other brands and, most frequently, we choose whichever item has the lowest price. Few among us consider what the real price of these goods truly is though, which is understandable. We cannot possibly be so considerate and research-intensive to fully grasp what each item goes through to reach our shelves. However, this does not mean that we should take for granted all that we have at our disposal. We need to collectively become more aware of the processes that bring our necessities to us. While we may not be able to follow every item from production to the final destination, it is important that we learn at least some. This much, I believe, is very manageable being the extremely capable beings that we are in this modern technological era - where information is at our fingertips. Learning about the origin of our daily consumption is essential in order to gain a global perspective. We each need to take a step back from the microcosms of our lives and acknowledge the interconnectedness between us all. By researching particular items we can gain this worldwide perspective and consciously make decisions; knowing that each decision we make has a greater impact on our planet and its inhabitants than we may ever have anticipated.
It was recent in my life that I decided some research was necessary regarding an item that I believe is vastly taken for granted by nearly our entire population: the pallet. Literally everything we have in our lives is transported on pallets at one point or another before it reaches its destination. Growing up, I used to collect pallets from behind grocery stores to build bonfires on the beach, and even now I use them for firewood. But it wasn’t until a recent project converting a pallet into an herb garden that I started to ponder where these things come from. How do they end up piled up behind stores in every single city? Where do they end up? Are they produced worldwide or only from one source? Following up on exactly these inquiries led me to learn more about this product than I ever would have expected. In doing so, my beliefs about the necessary awareness of global interconnectedness have been reinforced and further exemplified.
The emergence and rise of the pallet as the essential material and shipping source of our age began roughly one hundred years ago in the early twentieth century. While the exact origin is unknown, this is the first notable period where the pallet really began its transformation into what we recognize today. In the early 1900’s, warehouses began to load and unload objects using a piece of equipment known as a “life truck”. This lift truck is essentially a prehistoric forklift, only it operated with a large iron spatula shape protruding from the front. It was with this machine that one of the earliest forms of a pallet was used. This early proto-pallet was known as a “skid” and actually came in a variety of materials including wood, metal, and plastic. They were made with two pieces of wood going across known as “stringers”, and then boards connected between the two stringers from the top to bottom. Iron legs began to be included at the bottom which allowed space underneath for the lift truck to pick them up. Eventually by the 20’s, the lift truck remodeled the front area from the spatula form to a new mutation which had a two-tined fork. In response, the pallet was also innovated. A third stringer was added across the middle of the pallet, on which the forks could be inserted on either side to lift. Around 1925, boards were additionally placed along the bottom of the pallet underneath the stringers. This is the pallet that has lasted nearly a century to become our modern tool of trade.
This new mechanism proved to be extremely efficient in terms of both labor and time. Less men were now needed to perform the same operations of loading and unloading items to and from trucks. Although the technology was complete, pallets were not adopted widespread until the Second World War. As the government struggled to ship and supply resources to nearly 8 million general issues for soldiers and factories across the globe. To meet this demand they began searching for new notions of materials handling. In the Summer of 1941, the army arranged a field test in Indiana for a wide array of new material sources and handling. The pallet-forklift combination was decidedly more effective and efficient and just like that, the United States Army placed an order for one million pallets. Initially, the military began palletizing regular-shaped products only. However, as pressure from the war mounted and time was short, the pallet began to hold and transport a much more wide array of items. Pallets sales boomed in post-war times due to its new military adoption, as well as the advent of many new roads, trucking long-hauls, and general consumerism.
In the last half century, the pallet industry has grown to striking proportions as an estimated two billion wooden pallets exist in the United States alone today (Hodes). Wealth has been acquired for some, and enemies have been created by many. Many issues have become prevalent due to the widespread utilization of the shipping pallet and many solutions have been presented to solve them. New materials and technologies are regularly being tested and presented as modern innovations, though the traditional pallet seems to still carry the torch. Further examination of the production and final destination of these pallets provides many hints and insights into our planet at large, and our relationship to it.
With so many pallets circulating around our globe, we may wonder where all of this lumber originates from. Personally, I expected this wood to have been obtained from actions such as deforestation and other environmental degradation. As it turns out though, the evidence stands in stark opposition to these notions. Trees are originally harvested for a handful of select markets: grade lumber, furniture, veneer production, and paper (Haynes). The logs cut from the trees are sorted by many aspects and many are discarded and deemed unfit for use in these markets based on things like knots, twists, and crooks (warping). All of this discarded wood is the foundation of the entire pallet industry. Contrary to my expectations, pallets actually make more use of the tree that would otherwise be wasted. Although deforestation and the amount of lumber chopped down annually is devastating, at least a larger percentage of the tree is being used for pallets. So these rejected logs are sent to the pallet industries where they are cut to size and nailed together, resulting in an inexpensive form of shipping materials. Even while essentially using leftover wood that is otherwise not fit for market, studies estimate that pallets still account for 12-15% of lumber production in the United States.
The price per pallet does vary though, based on its size and shape. Traditional pallets that we see most often are what are called “whitewood” pallets. They come in many different dimensions and they are generally relatively weak and are expected to only last one single trip from point A to B. Once a pallet has reached its destination we usually see it simply lying around outside of stores, dumpsters, and construction sites. This seems to be one of the major issues surrounding the use of this product: where do they all end up? This problem arose immediately after the pallet boom post-WWII when pallets started piling up across the nation in landfills, warehouses, and loading docks. This stock of unwanted pallets resulted in an entirely new industry of pallet recycling. To recycle pallets appeared to be a genius opportunity because the supply of this material was seemingly endless and often free to pick up at your convenience. All that has to be done is pick them up, fix them up (if necessary), and then sell them directly back to the manufacturers. Eventually, these recyclers began leaving storage containers at different sites where pallets could be loaded into after use. Recyclers even began paying individuals who collected pallets from trash or elsewhere and paying them 50 cents to one dollar per pallet when brought the recycling plant, afterwhich they could be resold for up to $5 per pallet.
Unfortunately, pallets still continue to stock up across our cities. They are frequently dumped in areas that are not well-taken care of where government spending is seldom. They end up throughout the alleys of poor neighborhoods. Although companies may be taking extra steps to follow their pallets through their lifecycle by placing on them something called RFID tags, they still continue to ultimately lose track of them. Despite these efforts to reclaim pallets, we all know that they are being wasted away and taking up space. Thousands of pallets still wind up in landfills along with other green waste, where they really do not belong. The effects of this is more harmful than typical greenhouse gases, as food and green waste enters anaerobic activity and results in methane gas. Also, I can’t shake the feeling that not enough effort has gone into the awareness of pallet recycling. Personally, I had never heard about or even considered it as a possibility and I believe this is probably more widespread than just myself. In order the get pallets off of the street there needs to be more collection of them from their destinations. If there is enough money to be made by recycling them then perhaps people would be inclined to do that, just as so many people do with typical recyclables such as aluminum and plastic. Even so, there needs to be more awareness as to where you can even recycle these things. It remains unclear to me whether your average recycling plant accepts them but I do not believe they do. Instead, there seems to be specific companies that recycle pallets. However, they do not appear to be widespread enough to make recycling convenient. Until this situation is remedied, then pallets will go on lingering throughout our urban establishments.
Most whitewood pallets are products by numerous small and mid-sized business. Because they do not all follow strict regulations, we see a wide variety of pallets used by many businesses. However, no story of pallets would be complete without mentioning the arch-rival of whitewood pallets, the blue pallet. Not only are they a different color to be spotted out easily but they are also build differently and they are governed by different rules. They are about an inch taller than normal pallets and they are also generally cleaner, standardized, and more durable. They do not have stringer boards along the edges and they use wooden blocks instead to make up for height. By using this design, forklifts are able to pick up the pallet from all four sides which allows for greater efficiency and productivity. These pallets are developed and distributed by a company called CHEP, short for the Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool, and this company has what is commonly referred to as a monopoly over the pallet industry. They are, by far, the largest pallet industry in the economy with some 240 million blue pallets in rotation. They earned an estimated $3.5 billion in revenue in 2013, far more than any other pallet-related company; this Australian-based company now controls 90% of the block-style pallet market in the US (Hodes). Their print, “Property of CHEP” can be found on the sides of any blue pallet in case there is ever any confusion over to whom the pallet belongs to. Unlike most whitewood pallets, these blue pallets are technically rented out to companies around the world and are meant to be returned to CHEP. CHEP even has pallet retrievers, whose job it is to go out and find blue pallets to keep them in the cycle. Even with this program though, there are still millions of blue pallets unaccounted for in the United States alone.
To fight the domination of blue and whitewood pallets, several alternatives have been attempted to varying degrees of success. One of the more notable pallet innovations comes from a company started in 2006 called iGPS. They stated that the world of pallets was changing for the better and that the future was here. Furthermore, these new pallets were neither white or blue but were to be made from plastic instead. Despite a higher production cost, these pallets were sworn to be clean and strong. Another aspects of these pallets is that they would come with trackers known as RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) tags. This would help to remedy the issue of lost and misused pallets and create less waste. These plastic pallets were promoted by multiple studies, some of which showed that wooden pallets actually carried strains of E. coli among other bacteria. These bacterias could be detrimental to pallets containing food products among others but not surprisingly, these same studies were financed by iGPS leading one to wonder how reliable these results really are. This campaign to smear wood pallets has not been notably successful, and the millions of dollars invested in the new plastic pallets, actually resulted in a few big contracts with some very large companies. Despite all of this the future for plastic pallets looks grim: after all major investments, iGPS somehow managed to lose over a million pallets even with the tracking tags.
The invention of the pallet turned out to be one of the most productive tools of our modern era. They enabled the global economy to take literally any item and stack it neatly into a 3-4 foot cube for shipment. Many of my initial questions regarding pallets have now been answered. Pallets are produced all over the world in many different countries. Each of these countries tends to have their own standardized forms which are used primarily by the grocery industry among others. When determining which pallet is best there are many variables, and each seems to come with their own distinct advantages. The latter plastic pallet has a much longer lifespan than wood pallets and it is also much lighter. However, the environmental impact of these pallets is far more harmful than that of wood. The resources and methods needed to procure raw resources for plastic have many negative implications, and in the end, plastic pallets become a major waste issue if they are not properly regulated and recycled. Block pallets, such as CHEP’s blue pallet, require less energy to produce opposed to plastic and they are also much easier to recycle. They are also the heaviest of all the pallets, which can result in higher transportation costs and fossil fuel usage. The more typical whitewood pallets actually have the lowest environmental impact of all and is seen as a generally more renewable resource. They weigh less and are easy to retrieve and recycle, though their short lifespan often leads to large quantities of solid waste. Companies seeking pallets should certainly review exactly what they need out of their pallets before purchasing.
Overall, it seems as though the general consensus is that pallets really had it right the first time. The post WWII pallet is essentially what has endured the test of time and remains the most common pallet. It is this pallet that we all recognize and view from our peripheral vision without acknowledgement. It is with these pallets that many forms of modern art and innovation have spawned. Much like how shipping containers became a focal part for many artists around the 90’s, pallets have surfaced as an incredible alternative for many projects. Pallets are now being recycled by individuals for things like furniture, gardens, and art. The ability for pallets to be so widely repurposed is astonishing, and I personally hope that it becomes more recognized as a cheap (if not free) and readily available resource. Even today, I pick up discarded pallets as firewood to keep warm on cold Northern California nights. With disputes over pallet collection and recycling, I remain unsure if this is frowned upon or promoted by pallet producers and recyclers alike. As long as pallets continue to stock up around our towns though, it appears to me to be an excellent option for an alternative material to be used whenever possible instead of allowing them to end up in landfills or other environmentally unfit areas.
Associated Pallets. (2017). Life Cycle of an Average Wooden Pallet. [online] Available at: https://associated-pallets.co.uk/blog/life-cycle-average-wooden-pallet/ [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017].
Brindley, C. (2010). Life Cycle Analysis Underscores Environmental Challenges of Plastic Pallets. Pallet Enterprise.
Haynes, J. (2013). Where Does Wood Pallet Lumber Really Come From? The Answer May Surprise You.. [online] Nelson Company Blog. Available at: http://blog.nelsoncompany.com/home/where-does-wood-pallet-lumber-really-come-from-the-answer-may-surprise-you [Accessed 8 Dec. 2017].
Hodes, J. (2013). Whitewood Under Seige. Cabinet, Immaterial Incorporated.
Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society: a Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.