Options for Sustainable Pallets


‘Reduce, reuse and recycle’ is the mantra.

The choice shippers make concerning material and design for the pallets used to transport fruits and vegetables from fields to supermarkets across the country affects the sustainability of the entire produce distribution system.

Fortunately, sustainability and economics usually go hand in hand, because the most efficient use of materials and fuel to move produce has both the lightest footprint on the environment and the smallest impact on the wallet.

“When you reuse a product, you extend the life of it; you’re getting more value out of it,” says Tim Debus, president and chief executive of the Reusable Packaging Coalition, Tampa, FL. “There are economic and environmental benefits. You avoid having to harvest additional wood, or use more plastic.”

The choice of materials, design and management systems for pallets comes down to the increasingly familiar catch phrase: reduce, reuse and recycle.

Reduce Material In Pallets

The National Wooden Pallet & Container Association of Alexandria (NWPCA), VA, is taking optimization of resources in pallet design to a higher level in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that could help retailers merchandise their commitment to sustainability.

“We have a pallet design system,” says Patrick Atagi, vice president for advocacy and external affairs at the association. “If you use the pallet design system you are optimizing the resources and can use the USDA Certified Biobased Product logo.”

The Pallet Design System is a software program that lets users enter what they want to transport, in what quantity, and then receive 2D drawings of the pallet design using the least possible material that will let them safely move those products.

“It enables you to make the best use of your resources,” says Annette Ferri, vice president of communications at the NWPCA.

This program, which has been regularly improved since its introduction in 1984, is described in detail on the association’s website.

Late last year the NWPCA gained certification for pallets designed using this software to display the USDA Biocertified seal, which is an effort to reduce reliance on petroleum by promoting the efficient use of farm-based alternatives.

Atagi, a member of the United Fresh Supply Chain Logistics Council, says initial industry response to the possible merchandising value of a Biocertified label has been enthusiastic.

“The retailers aren’t just saying ‘our strawberries or potatoes are organic or sustainable,’ they can also put a stamp on the pallets that says they are USDA Biocertified,” says Atagi. “With biobased certification, you’re designing a pallet that uses the optimal amount of material and less fossil fuel to make and transport. You should request this from your suppliers or pallet maker.”

Another way to reduce the use of materials is to ship on smaller pallets, if possible; suppliers are competing with various economic models.

“One of the biggest trends in platform management is the robust CHEP 40 inch by 24 inch shared (pooled) half-pallet,” says Ben Eugrin, director of supply chain solutions at CHEP North America, Orlando, FL. “Retailer and manufacturer feedback shows the halfpallet is an effective platform for increasing sales and reducing labor costs.”

CHEP is a global pallet and logistics solutions company owned by the Australia-based conglomerate Brambles, a supply chain logistics company that owns CHEP’s sister company, IFCO, which offers pallet recycling, used pallets, used wood pallet supply and reusable plastic containers.

“With biobased certification you’re designing a pallet that uses te optimal amount of material and less fossil fuel to make and transport. You should request this from your suppliers or pallet maker.”

— Patrick Atagi, National Wooden Pallet & Container Association

Litco International Inc., Vienna, OH, offers half- and even quarter-sized versions of the pallets it presses out of damaged or recycled wood. “The pallets are lightweight, but very strong, resist moisture and are bug, bark, mold and odor free,” says Gary Sharon, vice president of Litco International. “They come in the standard Grocery Manufacturer’s Association’s (GMA), full size 48-by-40 and a half-size, 24-by-40. New to the product line is a quarter-size 20-by-24, priced at only $2.65 each in truckload lots. All of the pallet sizes are designed for easy access with a hand jack.”

These molded pallets are light and nestable, which means they reduce the amount of space and fuel needed to store or transport.

“For companies that want a pallet supplier committed to sustainability, Litco’s Inca molded wood pallets are a complement to any company’s initiative to stay lean and green,” says Sharon. “The nestable design saves space. This allows for a reduction of more than 200 square feet of storage space per truckload when compared to double-face stringer and block pallets. They also contribute to reducing injuries related to lift truck traffic. They save fork truck drivers time and energy by transporting up to three times as many per trip.”

Reuse Where Appropriate

The impact on both the environment and the bottom line can also be softened when pallets are reused.

“We are finding more and more pallets in reusable systems,” says Reusable Packaging Coalition’s Debus. “Wood pallets are designed and built to be reused. The material doesn’t determine whether it is reused. There is a trend toward reuse of material.”

Reuse is becoming more practical because technology, originally developed to improve traceability for food safety purposes, can also be used to help track the location of pallets.

“An exciting technology development is enabling better tracking and recovery of the pallets,” says Debus. “As technology develops and advances, it gives better control of inventory and allows for automatic case- or pallet-level tracking; we see greater use of this technology every year.”

Pooling specialists are using this tracking technology to more efficiently move pallets from one job to the next.

Intelligent Global Pooling Systems (iGPS) in Orlando, FL, has RFID tags installed in each pallet and also uses barcodes to keep track of their assets and determine dwell times,” says Denver Schutz, technical services manager at Gerawan Farming, Sanger, CA. “The preferred way to keep track of pooled pallet assets is by having the shipper ‘move’ the pallet from origin to destination by entering the specific information into an online application.”

Gerawan, a California tree fruit grower, prefers to make its own pallets rather than buy or rent, because the company says it offers greater control to the quality and safety of the fruit.

“First and foremost, retailers should focus on arrivals and getting their produce in the same condition as when it was shipped,” says Schutz. “When suppliers ship on reused pallets, there is a chance for product damage. This would include crushed boxes, pallets that may have fallen over in transit and damaged product. Ultimately, a retailer should identify what is most important and strive to achieve those goals.”

In situations where it is imperative to use a pooled pallet, Gerawan prefers a plastic model with tracking capability.

“The retailer normally drives the decision on whether to rent or buy, but we always share our point of view,” says Schutz. “There is no better pallet in the industry than our Prima Pallet, and this is something we share with all of our retail partners. If we must use a pooled pallet, it will always be a plastic iGPS pallet. We prefer the plastic iGPS pallet because of its overall appearance, durability and cleanliness.”

Many shippers appear to be moving toward the economical system of reusing pallets from a pool.

“Increasingly, retailers and manufacturers are moving to a shared operating model for their platform management needs,” says CHEP’s Eugrin. “At CHEP, our business model is based on shared and reusable assets that provide unique economic and sustainability benefits to our customers.”

In addition to pallets, CHEP offers logistical services it contends frequently save customers substantial sums of money.

“Platform management is just one important aspect of effective supply chain management,” says Eugrin. “Our Supply Chain Solutions Portfolio is a collection of powerful tools that leverage our end-to-end supply chain expertise to help customers become more efficient, save money and reduce their environmental footprint. For instance, 95 percent of CHEP customers that utilize our Value Stream Mapping capability found 12 or more areas where they could become more efficient along their supply chain. One company saved $280,000 by cutting third-party warehouse costs.”

CHEP provides pallets, but it is a large company that also researches transportation solutions.

“We specialize in the development of innovative supply chain solutions, including unit load optimization, product damage reduction and packaging performance optimization,” says Eugrin. “The CHEP Innovation Center in Orlando, FL, is a state-of-the-art test facility that simulates real-world conditions like supply chain handling, warehouse stacking, unit load deflection, package handling, transport vibration and environmental conditions to test how the product and its packaging perform throughout the rigors of the modern supply chain.”

Another strategy for reducing the overall footprint is to reuse the pallet on the produce department floor as part of the display.

“If retailers use pallets for bases under point-of-purchase displays, then they should strongly consider using Litco’s molded wood pallets,” says Litco’s Sharon. “They are designed for safe interaction with the public. They do not have sharp corners or bottom boards for consumers to trip over.”

The smaller pallets seem more amenable for this secondary use as part of retail displays.

“CHEP customers are seeing an increase in the sale of promotional items and other products displayed on half pallets in high-traffic areas of the store,” says Eugrin. “In addition, the half-pallet has shown an ability to reduce out-of-stocks and product replenishment time at retailers.”

Recycle The Material

Eventually, any pallet will reach the point that it is no longer useable, and that’s where recycling comes in.

Even shippers who strongly prefer to use pallets one time only, like Gerawan Farming, make sure the used pallets return to the supply system.

“We sell all of our used and broken pallets to third-party pallet companies,” says Schutz. “They normally fix the pallets and sell them to other companies that may use them. That is just too risky for us. We always stack our fruit on new, and never previously used, Prima Pallets.”

Companies that say the best and most economical system is pooled pallets, such as CHEP, also offer the use of recycled.

“To help our customers meet their business needs, CHEP provides a variety of platform options, including shared (pooled), recycled and fractional pallets,” says Eugrin. “Shared pallets are often the most cost-effective. In addition, they can reduce labor costs and product damage, and help our customers meet their environmental sustainability goals when it comes to reducing waste and carbon emissions.”

Litco makes its line of lightweight pressed wood pallets from broken, or otherwise already used up, material.

“Our Inca molded wood pallets have recently been compared to new and recycled wooden pallets for strength and stiffness,” says Sharon. “Testing at The Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, has proven molded pallets are stiffer and more functional than the traditional GMA style wooden pallet.”

Consumers have no way of knowing that a retailer’s commitment to sustainability extends to the tools used to ship produce from the field to the store unless they are told about it.

“People don’t think about wood as sustainable or recyclable,” says Wooden Pallet & Container Association’s Atagi. “Unless you tell them, people don’t know the product you are using is biobased.”