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Pallet wars: corrugated industry tries to edge out wood pallets

Corrugated pallets.
Flickr user St Stev / Flickr
Corrugated pallets.

Listen to today's Environment Report.

Pity the lowly wood pallet. Nobody thinks about it. But it does so much work.

Corrugated pallets.
Credit Flickr user St Stev / Flickr
Corrugated pallets.

Most merchandise in supermarkets and big box stores is shipped on wood pallets. There are roughly two billion wood pallets circulating in the U.S.But now, the wood pallet is under attack. What's wrong with them? Well, for starters, tons end up in landfills.

A group called Change the Pallet says there's a better way to ship goods. It’s a group funded by the corrugated pallet industry, which wants shippers to use more of its product.

Adam Pener is with Change the Pallet. Pener says corrugated pallets are lighter and more compact. He says they weigh up to 80% less than wood pallets, and you can fit more goods into a truck by using them.

He says after IKEA switched to corrugated pallets, its truckloads were lighter, and the company used fewer trucks overall. That saved big on fuel and carbon dioxide emissions.

“Three hundred thousand metric tons of CO2 emissions reductions," Pener says. "Which is a very big number.” 

Just imagine if everybody switched, he says. 

But it's a little more complicated than that.

John Bradburn is Global Head of Waste Reduction for General Motors. He says GM uses corrugated pallets when it can. But there are cons, too.

“The corrugate will absorb moisture,” he says.

The pallets have to be stored indoors, so they don't get soggy.

Also, Bradburn says corrugated pallets are sometimes not strong enough for heavier stuff - like canned goods or some auto parts.

The National Wooden Pallet & Container Associationsays wood pallets are recyclable too. They can be shredded for mulch or pet bedding or biofuel.

And after all, both corrugated and wood pallets come from trees. So, can't we all get along?

Change the Pallet doesn't think so. The group is asking states and major universities to tell vendors to use corrugated pallets.

They figure, once a few of them are on board, big corporations will fall like dominoes.

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.