Study Shows Wooden Pallets Have Slightly Smaller Footprint Than Plastic

Plastic pallets are sometimes thought to be more eco-friendly than wooden pallets. But an extensive study conducted by researchers at Penn State shows that pallets made of wood edge out plastic when it comes to being environmentally friendly and sustainable. 

The study report from Penn State says that because plastic pallets have a longer life cycle and are not as easily damaged, they can stay in circulation longer than wooden pallets. However, they are comprised of petroleum or natural gas products, which must be weighed into the factors that affect the environment. 

The article from Penn State quotes Chuck Ray, who is an associate professor of ecosystem science and management in the college of agricultural sciences. “Few people realize the significance of this issue — there are about 700 million pallets produced and recycled each year in the United States alone … There are 2 billion pallets in use in this country.” 

Ray said, “This is the first academic, peer-reviewed study related to pallets, and it was funded entirely by Penn State and is unbiased.” He said other studies favored those who funded them. “Other studies were commissioned by the wood pallet industry and by the plastic pallet industry, and of course those results favored the funders.”

Among many factors, the study evaluated:

  • Long-term performance of treated wooden pallets and plastic pallets. 
  • The treatments used to kill pests and how they affect environment (comparing heat treating and chemical).
  • The impact of consuming forest products.
  • The impact of emissions released by both wood and plastic during their life cycles.
  • Influence on “ozone layer depletion, respiratory organics, aquatic ecotoxicity, terrestrial ecotoxicity, land occupation, aquatic acidification, aquatic eutrophication, global warming and non-renewable energy.”

Ray said, “Wooden pallets that are heat-treated to kill pests incur a carbon footprint 20% to 30% lower than those treated with methyl bromide fumigation.” 

The Significance of the Study

The article said, “With current concerns about climate change and in view of the massive amount of resources consumed to make many millions of pallets, assessing their carbon footprint is important, Ray believes. With 40 percent of all hardwood produced in the United States going into pallet production, he added, it is critical to know if wooden pallets are ecologically acceptable.”

Read the full study report on the Penn State website