For years debate has raged in the pallet industry about which type of platform is better for the environment—wood or plastic. At first glance, the answer may seem clear: Wood pallets are made from lumber, a renewable resource, whereas plastic pallets are made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is created from petroleum or natural gas. But some pallet companies say it's actually more complicated than that.
To get at the answer, researchers have been honing a tool called a lifecycle assessment (LCA), which tries to quantitatively assess the environmental impact of a product over its lifetime. Standardized under ISO 1440 guidelines, LCAs consider factors such as how much solid, liquid, and gaseous waste is generated at each stage of a product's life.
A number of companies in the pallet industry have commissioned assessments of their products. Pallet pool manager iGPS, for example, hired the consulting firm Environmental Resource Management to conduct lifecycle assessments of iGPS's plastic pooled pallets as well as wood pooled pallets and single-use wood pallets. The study found that the plastic pallet had a lower environmental impact than its wood counterparts in all of the categories assessed. CHEP, another larger pallet pooler, has also commissioned an LCA. Its study, conducted by the environmental consulting firm Franklin Associates, compared the pallets used in CHEP's pallet pool system to oneway pallets, pallets used in pallet exchanges, and slipsheets.
Not everyone, however, is convinced by the studies. Bruce Scholnick, president of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, a U.S.-based organization, contends that the assessments he has seen are based on flawed data. In particular, he argues that the deciding factor in most of the studies—the number of trips a pallet can make in its lifetime—is based on potentially incorrect assumptions. For instance, Scholnick notes that the "number of trips" standard fails to take into account the resiliency of wood pallets. If a plastic or metal pallet were run over by a truck on its first trip, for example, it would likely have to be written off as a total loss; a wood pallet in a similar situation could be repaired and reused.
For all the controversy surrounding the studies, it's unclear how much effect the "wood versus plastic" debate will ultimately have on pallet manufacturers, pool managers, and users. Right now, customers are genuinely interested in being environmentally responsible—but only if it is economically rewarding. Derek Hannum, director of marketing for CHEP, for example, says that for most customers, the primary consideration is still whether the pallet offers the performance they need at a cost that they can afford.
[Source: "Streamlined Life Cycle Assessment of the IGPS Pallet, the Typical Pooled Wooden Pallet, and the Single-Use Wooden Pallets," Environmental Resource Management Inc., August 2008: www.igps.net; and "CHEP Calculator," www.chep.com/onepallet]