The (Sustainable) Butterfly Effect: Wood Pallets

The Butterfly Effect refers to how one infinitesimal action can have a huge effect on the course of a much larger event.  The example I’ve heard in reference to this theory (it may be closer to fact than theory) is that the effects of a butterfly in Thailand flapping its wings could determine the severity of hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean.  Of course it’s probably impossible to prove how a butterfly could affect climatic conditions halfway around the world, but I believe that change is brought about with one small action.

Another way of looking at The Butterfly Effect is not by how one small action could change everything but rather how changing one small item can change everything, and by “small” item I’m referring to something that’s practically invisible to us because we take that item for granted.

Wood pallets are a product of a mechanized world.  They’re a universal device that allows the shipment of goods to be expedited.  And they’re an outdated solution to our 21st century society.  Here are some of the not-so well known facts about wood pallets (as listed on this article from the World Changing website):

– Approximately 40% of hardwoods harvested within the U.S. is for wood pallets

– They must be fumigated before shipping internationally

– One quarter of all wood residing in landfills are wood pallets

– The recycling rate for wood pallets is about 10%

– About 2/3 of wood pallets are used only once before being discarded

One product that appears to be a viable alternative to the wood pallet is a product developed by EcoDuro called Engineered Paper Pallets.  Another option for integrating the wood pallets that already exist is to build a house (or maybe a shed).

I’d like to think that we as a society are at the end of the “one and done” culture that bred our disposable mindset.  I feel like a fool every time I purchase a product where the packaging is discarded once the product is removed, especially when the packaging is perfectly fine to be reused.  A lot of energy, time, and resources went into creating that packaging just so that its life cycle can be a few minutes once purchased.

There are a lot of disposable products that can no longer be allowed to exist.  The greatest asset these items provide is the opportunity to create something that works better and is aligned with our 21st century society.  There are so many other products like wood pallets that are begging for change.  Just look around.  There’s a potential fortune to be made for making what seems to be an insignificant item better.


4 thoughts on “The (Sustainable) Butterfly Effect: Wood Pallets

  1. Stan Bowes

    It’s very sad to see ‘facts’ quoted entirely without checking their accuracy or the context in which they might be accurate.

    To take your first fact – 40% of hardwoods harvested in the U.S. is for wood pallets. Whilst this could well be true, it ignores the reality that this wood is a by-product of the timber industry. Pallets are produced from the low-grade timber that would otherwise be wasted, after the better grades have gone to furniture and construction, etc.

    Pallets do not have to be fumigated for international trade: in fact fumigation with methyl bromide will be illegal in most countries in the near future. They do have to be treated, usually by a heat-treatment. Again, in the case of the hardwoods quoted this heat is already applied in the drying process, though there is a small overhead of paperwork.

    In fact very few pallets end up in land-fill. The wood fibre in old, broken pallets is a valuable resource, and is used as bio-mass to produce power, shredded for mulch and animal bedding, and chipped to produce composite wood materials such as kitchen work-tops.

    Although the re-use percentage varies in different parts of the world, the majority are re-used: many over and over again. The EPAL euro pallet, for example, has an average life of around eight years. There is a pool of over 500,000,000 of these pallets in circulation in Europe. Similar commercial pools operate throughout the world, including the USA, and have equally long life-cycles.

    It is also sad to see the wood pallet being compared to a corrugated cardboard pallet.

    There is a place for these. They are light-weight, for example, and perhaps are useful where shipping costs are very high – airfreight, for instance.

    However, unlike wooden pallets, they certainly do have a very short life, can hold only a limited payload, and have great difficulty coping with real-life situations such as rain.

    Additionally, it takes a much greater amount of energy to produce ‘paper’ pallets. Essentially, wood pallets only need a few saw-cuts and nails for production. Have you ever been round a paper-mill?

    At least 95% of pallets in the world are produced from commercially managed forests, where it is obligatory to replant after felling. As a result, wooden pallets are basically carbon-neutral or even have negative impact.

    Although there are substitute materials, all of which have some merit, all are heavily carbon positive. This is particularly true of plastic and metal pallets, which use enormous amounts of energy at the production stage.

    So please, check the accuracy of your comments before criticising an industry which is responsible for massive efficiency improvements in the world-wide transport infrastructure.

    Stan Bowes
    European Pallet Association

  2. Eric Post author

    Thank you very much Stan for your reply to my post. I’m actually very happy that some of the items in my post are apparently not true.

    I assure you that the purpose of my post was not to make people enraged about how the pallet industry is destroying our planet. I know quite a few “green” people have developed the mentality that industry is evil, but I consider myself a realist and understand that without industry the idea of sustainability is just a pipe dream.

    The purpose of my post was to use the wood pallet as an example of a system that is currently implemented where we as a society/industry/earthlings can begin to see the potential of creating something better.

    The European Pallet Association (EPAL – shouldn’t have the mindset that its in the pallet business, but rather (to borrow your words) its in the business of maximizing massive efficiency improvements in the world-wide transport infrastructure. I’m willing to bet my bottom pound and euro that EPAL isn’t trying to develop a better wood pallet, but instead focusing on creating systems and methods for delivering goods from point A to point B in a manner that protects the integrity of those goods while having a minimal impact on the environment.

    And that’s truly my point – get to the core of why we do the things we do today, redefine those things based on the desired result, and eliminate any of the traditional baggage that no longer serves its purpose.

    Thank you again Stan for your time for reading and responding to my post. I greatly appreciate any additional viewpoints that help enlighten me.

  3. Pingback: Architects like shipping pallets |

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