Green Pallet Options: An LCA of Corrugated, Plastic and Wood Pallets

Let’s face it, today’s pallet industry is changing. Alternative materials used to manufacture pallets have entered the market offering attractive bottom line benefits, including recyclability, cost and weight savings, safety, cleanliness, durability and adaptability. Amongst metal, wood composites, plastic and corrugated paperboard, plastic and corrugated paperboard arguably hold the most potential to impact the use of wood. To explore our options, we thought we’d take a look at these three pallet materials from a life cycle analysis (LCA) standpoint:

How much energy is consumed in production?
All three materials require an assessment of raw material production, manufacturing, distribution and use, and disposal including all intervening transportation steps necessary or caused by the pallet. This is unique to each pallet. We can say, however, that 1. Corrugated uses renewable, recyclable resources, and is the most recycled packaging material in use today, 2. Wood requires more fuel to transport, generating increased levels of greenhouse emissions, and 3. Plastics consume energy at each level of production from extracting oil and natural gas to converting the raw materials to plastic and shaping it into shipping pallets.

How durable are they?
Durability is determined in relation to how each pallet is produced and handled.

Corrugated: Corrugated pallets have been tested to 45 trips, at which point they can be put back into the cycle for use.
Plastic: Plastic pallets have a higher usage, yet can collapse from plastic creep if used to store heavy loads for long periods. Plastic pallets are not easily repaired.
Wood: Over 50% of all wooden pallets in use today are single use. Splintering and insect infestation requires special repair and disposal.

How much do they weigh?

Corrugated: A 48×40” pallet weighs approximately 12lbs.
Plastic: Plastic pallets on average weigh 50% more than corrugated.
Wood: Wood pallets on average weigh 75% more than corrugated.

What happens at the end of its lifecycle?

Corrugated: Corrugated can be made from 100% recycled cardboard and is 100% recyclable at the end of its lifespan. No other product has this green advantage.
Plastic: Plastic pallets must be returned for recycling and remanufacture.
Wood: Wood pallets can be recycled at an average cost of $2.60 per pallet however landfills are closing to these pallets.

Can they be recycled?

Corrugated: Paper is the most recycled material in the world. Every corrugated board can be recycled or composted. There is no need for a single box to go to landfill. An established global market exists in used corrugated, providing the corrugated retailers with an income stream. A corrugated pallet has value up to $1.20 when recycled.
Plastic: Plastic containers are reusable more than corrugated, but they also require petroleum materials. Plastics enter the waste stream and cause long term problems. Additional costs include washing, sanitizing, backhaul, length of life and recycling or disposal costs. Some plastic manufacturers have added the chemical fire retardant deca-bromine to the petroleum based polymer pallets. According to a lifecycle analysis by Intelligent Global Pooling Systems who purchases its pallets from Schoeller Arca System, its deca-bromine infused plastic pallets contain as much as 3.4 lbs of the chemical. This makes recyclability expensive and time consuming, as the broken pallets must be returned for recycling and remanufacture.
Wood: A wood pallets costs on average $2.60 to recycle. Millions of wood pallets end up in landfills every year.

The bottom line: The UNIPAL Pallet is 100% recyclable and 100% biodegradable, is made from 100% renewable resources, offers unlimited point-of-sale possibilities, makes best use of pallet height, is preferred by the consumer, saves fuel by using less space, makes money for the retailer when sold for recycling, is the natural, sustainable choice.

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