Independent Life Cycle Analysis Recognises Plastic Pallet Benefits
07 May 2015
Ever since plastic pallets began to gain a serious foothold in the worldwide pallet market, there has been an often confused debate about which material is more environmentally friendly – plastic or traditional wood.
First impressions suggest that this should be wood. Although these pallets are made from timber that has to be felled, wood is ultimately a renewable resource. Plastic pallets are made mostly from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a polymer created from refining crude oil and natural gas – fossil fuels which are warming the planet as they are burned.
Lifecycle Assessment Analysis
The reality is more complicated, obscure and even contradictory. One way of finding an answer is to use a tool known as Lifecycle assessment analysis (LCA). This is an assessment in quantitative terms – measured units – of a pallet’s environmental impact during its operational lifetime. The analysis has been standardised according to ISO 1440 guidelines and assesses the amounts of liquid, solid and gaseous waste generated through each stage of the pallet’s life.
Plastic has been making inroads into the pallets market because it is easy to clean, and these pallets are better adapted to maintaining strict hygiene standards for shipping foods, pharmaceuticals and electronics. The plastic is also stronger and more durable and so able to handle heavier loads, cutting shipping costs. Plastic pallets have a life 10 times longer than wooden pallets and do not suffer from constant damage such as exposed nails and broken boards, as is common with wooden pallets.
Study Commissioned by iGPS
U.S. pallet pool management company iGPS contracted Environmental Resource Management, a consulting form, to conduct an LCA for plastic, wooden and single-use pooled pallets. The study came after iGPS had renewed a contract with Gerawan Farming, a U.S. stone fruit company, to handle 100,000 boxes of fruit daily.
The iGPS study estimated that a plastic pallet has the following qualities compared to a wooden pallet:
- 65% to 70% less impact on global warming, meaning the generation of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases during its lifetime, as well as 91% to 92% less impact on ozone layer depletion.
- 25% to 35% less impact on abiotic depletion – the depletion of non-organic and non-living resources.
- 60% to 65% less impact on photochemical oxidation – the reaction under sunlight of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere to produce a chemical smog.
- 60% to 65% less impact on acidification – the creation of sulphur and nitrogen oxides emitted into the atmosphere.
- 75% to 80% less impact on eutrophication – the creation of excess nutrients in water bodies that create an algal growth that stops sunlight reaching other water plants.
As in most environmental studies that require researchers to make initial, mostly personal, assumptions about the interactions between variables under study, this research has been challenged, The National Wooden Pallet and Container Association in the U.S. said the study was based on flawed data and fails to take into account how resilient wooden pallets can be. A wooden pallet can be run over by a lorry and repaired. This repair job cannot be carried out on a plastic pallet, the organisation noted.
Does Environmental Impact Matter When Choosing a Pallet Material?
Whatever the controversy surrounding such studies, it is doubtful whether the plastic versus wood debate on environmental impact will have any effect at all on most pallet users, poolers and manufacturers, says CHEP, the world’s largest pallet-pooling company. Businesses will choose the best type of pallet they need to shift their goods at the best cost for them.