Frequently Asked Questions
Let's start with the basics. What are shipping pallets?
Shipping pallets (sometimes called "skids") are portable platforms on which items are loaded for freight shipping. The most common type of pallet is made of wood, but pallets can also be made of plastic, metal, or cardboard. Not all pallets are alike. They vary in size, weight, and strength. Almost every product we own came to us on a shipping pallet. There are six pallets in circulation in the U.S. for every woman, man, and child. Millions of people work with wood pallets every day, and they cause thousands of injuries each year in the U.S. alone.
How do corrugated pallets reduce emissions?
Weight: Cardboard pallets weigh up to 80% less than wood pallets. Less weight = less fuel, and less fuel = fewer carbon emissions. Applied to billions of pallet shipments each year, the potential to reduce fuel and emissions is significant.
Customization: Cardboard pallets can be cost-effectively customized to fit specific product dimensions, which enables more product to fit on a truck. This means fewer trucks are required to carry the same amount of product. For example, after switching to cardboard pallets, IKEA has reported using 50,000 to 100,000 fewer trucks per year.
Eliminating truck movements: Reusing (or landfilling) wood and plastic pallets requires an entirely separate truck segment (or segments), consisting of several million trucks every year, dedicated solely to the purpose of driving from location to location to retrieve them and deliver them to their next point of use. For more on this, please see “How many millions of trucks does it take to reuse wood pallets?” below.
Is Change the Pallet suggesting that all palletized shipments be on cardboard pallets?
No. In a world where cardboard pallets are the norm, there would still be plenty of uses for wood and plastic pallets. Wood and plastic pallets should be avoided for one-way trips and lightweight loads. Most shipments in the U.S. are under 1,200 pounds, which is well within the range of the average cardboard pallet. Cardboard pallets are also ideal for shipments to hospitals, university campuses, government agencies and others that have no use for wood pallets and often end up discarding them.
How much can cardboard pallets carry?
Different manufacturers make different pallets for different applications, and it's important to note that 85% of all U.S. pallet shipments are under 1,200 pounds."* That said, the more durable corrugated pallet options can carry 2,000 pounds or more. For example, one major cardboard pallet manufacturer here in the United States sells assembled corrugated pallets that can carry 5,000 pounds, which is comparable to a heavy-duty block wood pallet. Another U.S. company advertises pallets that can be customized to carry anywhere from 3,000 to 15,000 pounds.
*"One-way pallets for your lightweight products—for less. Although 85% of all unitized loads shipped in North America weigh less than 1,000 pounds, most companies still use heavy wood pallets. Wood pallets are made to carry loads in excess of 2,500 pounds, and can increase shipping costs, raise disposal fees, pile up in landfills and sometimes cause damage to the products they're supposed to protect. Wooden pallets are even now prohibited by some countries and companies because wood-boring parasites love them." Source: Sonoco
Can cardboard pallets get wet?
Yes, cardboard pallets can be treated to withstand water and condensation within reason and this treatment does not affect recyclability. However, even treated corrugated pallets are not intended to be left out in the rain for days at a time – but then, neither are a vast majority of products that pallets carry. We advocate for the use of cardboard pallets for those applications representing a vast majority of palletized shipments that do not require products to be left in standing water or rain.
How many companies store their products on pallets outside in the elements?
In retail America, almost none. Most only leave emptied wood pallets outside for the purpose of storing them until trucks pick them up, but the idea is to eliminate that "reverse haul" (and associated truck traffic, fuel, and emissions) by recycling corrugated pallets at the store level. Many grocery stores and retailers have onsite bailers because they receive so much cardboard.
Can cardboard pallets be reused?
Generally speaking, yes. However, a key environmental benefit of cardboard pallets derives from their "one way" use potential. "One way" pallets are pallets that go all the way from the supplier to the distribution center and downstream to their targeted destination (grocery store, college, hospital, etc.). At this point, the “one way” cardboard pallet is recycled, thereby eliminating the millions of trucks, emissions, and costs associated with wood and plastic pallet retrieval.
How are "one way" cardboard pallets better for the environment than simply reusing wood pallets?
It's important to consider the full scope of emissions when it comes to reusing wood and plastic pallets. In order for them to be reused, they must (1) be collected via truck (fuel and emissions); and (2) be driven to a location where they are cleaned / repaired (fuel, emissions, chemicals, and waste); and then (3) driven by truck to their point of reuse (more fuel and emissions). All of these truck movements result in extra costs, emissions, and waste, which have a negative impact on the environment.
How many millions of trucks does it take to reuse wood pallets?
There are no statistics for this, but consider the following: Reusing all of America's two billion wood pallets just one time would require a minimum of five million trucks (assuming each of them were fully loaded) to drive X miles from location to location in order to retrieve the pallets, then Y miles to a refurbishment facility to be repaired and cleaned, and then another Z miles to drive them from the refurbishment facility to their point of reuse.
Even if we were to assume a very conservative average of 30 miles per truck for all of the above trips combined, it would take a minimum of five million trucks traveling a combined total of 150 million miles, requiring almost 25 million gallons of gas, and resulting in the emission of about 560 million pounds of CO2 into the air – just to reuse each of America's wood pallets one time.* Cardboard pallets would eliminate all of these unnecessary truck movements, because they would be left in recycle bins at the end of the line (taking advantage of an already-existing truck segment and national recycling infrastructure).
*There are no statistics available to tell us the average amount of miles it takes for a truck to retrieve pallets, drive them to refurbishment facilities, and then to their points of reuse. Our estimate is conservative to avoid any appearance of overstating the impact of all of these truck movements. In reality, these extra truck movements likely amount to an average well over 30 miles in many more than 5 million trucks, which are often not filled to capacity, resulting in significantly more truck traffic, fuel, and emissions than suggested in this example.
Which requires more energy, producing a cardboard pallet or a wood pallet?
An LCA published by the Corrugated Packaging Alliance addresses this question. We find its conclusion to be reasonable and supported. To summarize that conclusion: making 100 million pallets, wood or corrugated, results in roughly the same energy usage when all factors are considered.
How much do cardboard pallets weigh vs. wood and plastic pallets?
Cardboard pallets weigh between six and 16 pounds vs. wood and plastic pallets that weigh between 30 and 75 pounds.
If cardboard pallets can be customized to fit more product on trucks, then why can't companies do the same with wood pallets?
They can, but it's not cost-effective – so they don't. In other words, it's cheaper for companies using wood pallets to ship their products on more trucks that are partially empty than it is to maximize truck volume with expensive customized wood pallets. Cardboard pallets, however, can be cost-effectively customized to fit product dimensions, increasing truck volume and reducing trucks on the road. IKEA reports using 50,000-100,000 fewer trucks per year to ship the same amount of product thanks to cardboard pallets. Imagine how many millions of trucks we could remove from American roads if we applied this practice on a national scale.
How much do cardboard pallets cost vs. wood pallets?
This changes from market to market, but at high volumes cardboard pallets cost less than new wood pallets. At lower volumes, cardboard pallets may cost more, but the savings are systemic. Consider the above example of IKEA using 50,000 to 100,000 fewer trucks every year: fewer trucks = more savings. Likewise, fewer worker injuries related to heavy wood pallets (back strains) and abrasions from nails and sharp splinters = less money companies spend on worker's compensation. Think in terms of software. It costs money to implement a software system, but companies attain a return on investment through various savings categories. Same concept with corrugated pallets vs. wood.
Do wood pallets carry invasive pests that are harmful to the environment?
Wood pallets often attract insects and pests, which burrow into the pallet before it is shipped from one location to another. Once there, these invasive insects have been known to cause harm to the ecosystem to which they were shipped. Invasive pests are costing the U.S. economy close to $5 billion a year, and many of them are coming by way of wood pallet. This is well documented and there are several articles on this topic. Here is one of them: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/environment/2018/12/20/invasive-insects-US-billions-damage-pests-farm-bill-safeguards-trees/stories/201812010080
Should I be using wood pallets to make garden beds and other DIY projects?
We don't recommend using any for DIY projects or composting because there is no way of knowing whether a wood pallet is contaminated (e.g., transported raw protein). Here's an article for further reading on this topic, please read this article: https://www.familyhandyman.com/woodworking/the-top-7-reasons-why-pallet-creations-are-so-out/view-all/
Do wood pallets really cause injuries?
Yes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) website lists hundreds of instances of pallet-related injuries, most of them resulting in crushed hands or fractured ankles, but some of them even resulting in death. In 2017, for example, an employee was killed at a Walmart in Florida while moving a stack of empty pallets, after two of them fell on her head.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, musculoskeletal disorders (back strains) account for 31% of all worker injury cases in the United States. Though no statistics exist on how many of these are caused by lifting wooden pallets, it's reasonable to suggest that this number might be lower if workers were lifting/moving pallets that weighed 10 pounds each vs. 50 pounds each. Or as IKEA Store Manager, Alessandra Zini, puts it: "Paper pallets are light! You can lift a pallet with two fingers. This not only opened up job opportunities to a more diverse and gender balance workforce in Logistics, but helped to significantly reduce back injuries in our store."
Why are so many wooden pallets not recycled?
For the record, the National Wood Pallet & Container Association claims that 95% of wood pallets in the U.S. are reclaimed, reused and/or recycled. This strikes us as highly inflated due to the lack of recycling centers in many U.S. areas where pallets are received at high volumes. However, even if the NWPCA is correct, please see the answer above which demonstrates the cost, emissions, fuel use, etc. associated with retrieving, moving, cleaning and reusing / recycling hundreds of millions of pallets each year.
How do logistics professionals who work with corrugated pallets feel about using them vs. wood pallets?
IKEA's Portland Store Manager, Ms. Alessandra Zini, testified to this question in front of Oregon's State Legislature. Below are excerpts from her testimony, describing what employers “on the ground” experienced after IKEA switched to cardboard:
As soon as we implemented the new racking [system], the acceptance of the change became exponential due to an incredible gain in efficiency in every step of our daily operations.
Our suppliers are really glad that they don't have to deal with the pallets coming back to them and the cost associated with that
Paper pallets are light! You can lift a pallet with two fingers. This not only opened up job opportunities to a more diverse and gender balanced workforce in logistics, but helped to significantly reduce the back injuries in our store.
When we open the store, it is much easier to maintain the commerciality and safety of the sales floor because we can keep reducing the size of the cardboard pallet as the merchandise sells, recycling as we go.
The paper pallet can be loaded on a pallet jack from both sides – coworkers rarely need to change the pallet jack with different size of pallets.
Because of the space gained in the dock, in the rare cases in which we don't completely finish the replenishment in the morning, we can temporary leave the received goods in the area in which we used to stock the wooden pallets. This allows the coworker to be able to get these products easily for the customers that need them.
Three times the amount of empty paper pallets can be stocked on a pallet jack, so less trips to the bailer for the co-workers.
Yesterday we had our monthly store rally with our co-workers and I shared with them I was coming here today. I asked them "what should I say, if they ask me how you feel about this change?" and they said "tell them that we would never go back to wooden pallets and that we are proud of working at IKEA because of this change
As we collect the cardboard, our waste management generates income most of the months.
More freight comes to us packed on a truck than before – 45 wood pallets vs. up to 66 cardboard pallets.
While we used to send back to our DC empty wooden pallets once a week, we now only send one back every other month. Effectively, we've taken 42 semi-trucks a year off the road just in running empty pallets. That's how much Portland has contributed to the 75,000 less tons of CO2 emission per year
Why aren't American companies jumping at the chance to switch from wood to cardboard pallets?
This is a great question, and one that deserves to be asked of companies and municipalities across America. Why are manufacturers delivering toilet paper and paper towels on a pallet that weighs more than the product itself? Why are sterilized medical supplies being shipped to hospitals on wood pallets that may have carried raw chicken in a previous use? Why are we not taking advantage of an opportunity to increase America's truck carrying capacity by 20-30%? Why are we continuing to embrace the shortcomings of a technology that became popular in the 1940s? All of these are questions that should be asked. Here are some possible answers.
Entrenched interests: Shipping pallets are an $11.5 billion American business, and the industry is not fond of regulation. There is a massive lobby called the National Wood Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA), which is very powerful. When Haverford College became the first institution to send a letter to suppliers asking for shipments to campus to be sent on corrugated pallets, the NWPCA responded in full force. The NWPCA also upended Oregon Legislation that would have set a global precedent, saved taxpayers millions of dollars, and cut CO2 emissions significantly by requiring shipments to state facilities to be on corrugated pallets.
Inertia: Many companies have established systems and are resistant to change, especially when it includes upfront costs, even if those upfront costs end up paying for themselves over the long haul. For example, IKEA reports investing ~$200 million to launch their global paper pallet initiative, and reports recouping that investment in one year. But not all companies operate like IKEA, and not all companies are willing to take the risk – especially if they're not being pressured to do so.
Lack of demand: Until recently, shipping pallets have not been widely recognized as a major environmental issue - not to mention a safety issue, health issue, and taxpayer / consumer issue. But this is all beginning to change. In April, 2019, a group of American colleges and universities sent a joint letter to suppliers asking them to consider shipping to campuses on cardboard pallets instead of wood. The letter was co-signed by The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) as well as ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability USA, along with Roger Ballentine, President of Green Strategies and Former Chairman, White House Climate Change Task Force.
The theory behind Change the Pallet's work is very simple: When colleges, universities, hospitals, municipalities and companies ask for, or mandate, the use of corrugated shipping pallets, the companies that receive checks from these organizations will comply. Just look at plastic straws.