Stacking up the case for wooden pallet shredding

As pallet procurement and usage continues to grow worldwide, Lewis Horne, sales consultant at industrial shredding specialist UNTHA UK, explores the overlooked disposal method that could follow suit — not only for optimal space saving, but to reduce operational overheads, curb environmental impact, and enhance health and safety protocols on-site.

In case you missed the original article on page 44-45 of Skip and Waste Magazine, you can catch up below…

AI, automation, and robotics have made their mark in the warehousing industry. As well as improving the efficiency and accuracy of order fulfilment, technology investments have seen significant improvements to inventory management, product inspection and customer service response times, to name just a few. Yet, when it comes to the storage and transportation of goods inside the depot, and distribution of items further afield, pallets are still a mainstay of successful operations. 

Wooden pallets remain the biggest staple at most storage and distribution facilities today. As well as being cost-effective to procure, and therefore kinder to tightening budgets, they’re  a much loved, long used item that facilitates the movement of goods — whether that be component parts coming into manufacturing facilities, outbound goods on their way to final destinations, or the transportation of products all around the world. But could its popular nature also pose a challenge?

The environmental toll of traditional disposal routes

Provided the material is sourced from well-managed forests, wood manufacturing processes can be both sustainable and responsible. However, even if a pallet has been made from sustainably harvested wood, the speed at which it is made redundant, and the disposal route followed thereafter means this simple logistics product could soon pose an environmental challenge. This holds particularly true in bustling operational environments, where space is at a premium, and single-use pallets soon become difficult to house. But even renowned reusable wooden pallets, such as the EPAL-marked Euro Pallet, will eventually reach their end of life. 

As well as taking several years to decompose in landfill sites, wooden pallets can leach harmful chemical preservatives into soil and groundwater, as well as emit potent methane into the atmosphere — a greenhouse gas which has 84 times greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide, over a 20-year period. If incinerated, they can release an equally harmful volume of pollutants that exacerbate climate change, with the energy intensive-nature of the process only adding to the environmental burden. Not to mention, incineration should of course be avoided as much as possible because, in line with waste hierarchy compliance, there are far more ecological routes for handling these redundant materials.

Pallets often travel long distances, on various modes of transport, sit in a number of different weather conditions, carry a variety of goods, and could be abandoned for several weeks or months between uses. As such, they could harbour a variety of health hazards, including: dangerous pathogens like e.coli or salmonella; mould and mould spores; rot; carcinogens, pesticides, or chemical preservatives; bug infestations; and toxins spilled during freight transportation. Naturally, they’re more susceptible to damage too. 

The dangers of pallet stockpiling

While wooden pallets may be easy to stack, in space-constrained facilities they still take up valuable room. Even if sites are not battling with storage space, pallets shouldn’t sit idle.

A significant fire hazard, they represent a ready source of dry fuel, with their frayed edges prone to easy ignition. The makeup of pallet stacks — with upper layers shielding lower ones — optimises airflow in spaces too, increasing the likelihood of fire spread and making suppression efforts more challenging for responders. 

Of course, it’s not only warehouses that are at risk. Any location where pallets are stockpiled, from distribution centres to retail stores, face potential dangers. These fires don’t just impact the entire storage configuration, but have the potential to spread to adjacent buildings, and compromise human health. 

The National Fire Protection Association sets out a number of requirements to limit the hazard — not just for wooden pallets, but for plastic ones too. For example, wooden pallet piles should not exceed 6 ft in height indoors, meanwhile plastic pallets cannot be taller than 4 ft, and both must be separated by a minimum of 8 ft of clear space. These are just small details, part of much more comprehensive guidance that can be easily accessed online.

Maximising the potential of pallet ‘waste’

To prevent inherent fire risks, there is therefore an eagerness to remove worn or damaged pallets from site. Selecting a responsible waste contractor who will ensure they are recycled instead of being destined for landfill, is one thing. But these bulky products soon fill skips, which means the ongoing transportation – not to mention the associated waste management fees – can prove costly and inefficient. This is where reframing the pallet problem from ‘waste’ to ‘wealth’ is truly key.

By processing wooden pallets on site, businesses can take control of their own waste management and transform what was once considered a disposal problem into a valuable resource. Industrial pallet shredders engineered specifically for this application, like UNTHA’s PS1300, offer a sustainable solution that converts used pallets into homogenous wood chips. 

Depending on the grade produced, these can either be used for remanufacturing, animal bedding, or sold for biomass heat recovery or landscaping mulch. Any foreign objects ‘locked’ inside these wooden pallets — such as screws, nails, and other packaging materials — can also be liberated and removed via a magnet, for resale and recycling.

The focus for operators isn’t then just the volume reduction of pallets, environmental benefits, or decrease in waste disposal costs, but the creation of additional revenue streams.

One of our clients, MC Refrigeration, diverted over 24 tonnes of wood waste from landfill just three months after investing in a PS1300 pallet shredder. That’s as well as slashing the £1,000 monthly spend — previously being swallowed by landfill costs, skip hire, and collection fees — and selling the homogenous 30mm wood chip produced from the waste wood pallets for biomass heat recovery.

It’s a case in point that with the right tools and mindset, businesses can turn the mounting pallet problem into a profitable opportunity, paving the way for a more sustainable, closed-loop approach.

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