By John Andrew Shawyer, director, Plastic Pallets.
Wooden pallets are very much the standard in most industries, but plastic pallets have carved out a definite niche for themselves. While most businesses currently still use wood, more and more are starting to turn to plastic. One particularly fierce topic of debate is whether plastic or wooden pallets are the more environmentally friendly. Both have been touted as an eco-option, and opinions on the subject vary widely. This is because it is a particularly complex subject with a number of factors to consider.
There are many different types of plastic pallet, and all of these factors can vary significantly between different varieties. As such, there are no strict answers, but in general the following points apply.
The manufacturing process is the first thing to look at when assessing the environmental impacts of different pallet types. Wooden pallets tend to be built with cultivated or scrap wood, meaning that they are made from a renewable resource. In fact, when made from scrap wood they reduce the amount of waste that would otherwise be incinerated or sent to landfill. Plastics, on the other hand, are derived from oil, a finite and non-renewable resource. However, the amount by which plastic pallet manufacturing drains the planet's oil resources is currently negligible, though this could be in part due to their relatively small market share.
The actual manufacturing process also creates carbon emissions, largely due to the use of machines as well as the need to distribute pallets after manufacture through the use of motor vehicles. Wooden pallets have the edge when it comes to the carbon footprint of the production process, but the difference is not huge. The gap has been somewhat closed by the introduction of more legally required processes, such as fumigation, that must go into the production of wooden pallets.
Plastic pallets have a definite advantage when it comes to lifespan. Both types of pallet tend to be reused a significant number of times, and might even go on to be sold second-hand for further usage in other companies. There are thriving markets in both used plastic pallets and second-hand wooden pallets. However, both kinds will eventually wear out, and this tends to take significantly longer to happen to a plastic pallet. Plastic varieties are more durable, less prone to damage from the weather or chemical spillage and do not have weak points at the joins.
Wooden pallets do, however, tend to be repaired as long as it remains possible, lengthening their lifespan by quite a bit. In many cases, pallets that are beyond repair will be broken down and the materials that are still good will be combined with parts from other broken pallets to make new usable items. This means it can even be hard to identify when a pallet's life truly ends. Nonetheless, their plastic rivals still have a definite edge when it comes to longevity. This means that they contribute less waste to landfill and reduce the amount of carbon produced by manufacturing replacement items.
Disposal and Recycling
However long-lived a pallet, it will eventually come to the end of its life. This is the final stage at which they may have a significant impact on the environment. If they are simply disposed of, then wooden pallets offer definite advantages over plastic ones. They are biodegradable and break down to leave no lasting impact on the environment. They can also be burned (which, if they were made from cultivated wood, is effectively a carbon-neutral process). Plastic ones, on the other hand, will languish as waste material for centuries or even millennia.
However, the disposal process is often -- perhaps usually -- not so straightforward. Both types of pallet are almost invariably recyclable. Most plastic varieties can be melted down to produce new pallets, although they may not be suitable for turning into other items depending on the type of plastic used. Wooden ones, meanwhile, can be shredded down to make materials such as paper, or broken down for the manufacture of new pallets. They are also frequently recycled or pillaged for materials by enterprising DIY enthusiasts making items for their household. In short, both items can be economically recycled, and when this method of disposal is chosen there is little to separate them.
John Andrew Shawyer is a director of Plastic Pallets. John specilises in all types of pallets and pallets distribution.