Old Pallets a Problem?

Unusable pallets have uses beyond the landfill.


  • Sam's A-Grade: the highest grade recycled pallets used in wholesale club operations. They have no plated stringer repairs, painted stringers or softwood lumber. All have 6-inch leading edge boards.
  • Premium A-Grade: Similar to Sam's A-Grade, but they may include plated stringer repairs and painted string­ers.
  • Standard A-Grade: Quality pallets that may have been repaired a few times. They may have 4-inch or 6-inch leading edge boards.
  • One Stringer B-Grade: They contain only one double or sister stringer repair.
  • B-Grade: May contain one or more double or sister stringer repairs.

"Our recycled grocery pallets (48-inch-by-40-inch, four-way pallets) are repaired, graded and sold based on each pallet's condition," he says.

Recycling is also extending the life expectancy of wood pallets. Most wood pallets average 1.7 trips before being damaged. With recycling, a typical wood pallet can go back and forth for about three or four years, Scholnick says. "Its lifecycle depends on how much the forklift driver abuses or doesn't abuse it, how it's used or misused. The stringer and lead deck board are usually the first things to go because that's where the forks hit them, but they can be easily replaced."

When wood pallets have reached the point where they cannot be repaired, the wood can be recycled to create building materials like flooring, paneling, furniture, cabinets and more. They can also be ground up for animal bedding, mulch, fuel, soil amendment, particleboard, pulp, wood packaging or charcoal. That kind of pallet recycling generates about $3.5 billion annually across the nation.

For Nepa, about 10 percent of the pallets that it receives for recycling fall into that category. Several others are not worth reconditioning because they are odd sizes and there is not much of a market for them.

"Grocery pallets are very recyclable because they are a standard size. Pallets in some other businesses are not so much, and that's where we run into problems," says Sherry. "We have to be selective in who we receive pallets from. Old pallets are a garbage problem for them, and we do not want to make it our garbage problem."

Wood from unusable pallets is also being used to make composite pallets—a combination of post-industrial wood fibers and plastic resins. These pallets, though, are "about 10-15 pounds heavier than traditional wood pallets and cost a lot more," Scholnick says.

Alternative Sources
For those companies that do not want the responsibility of handling the storage and recycling of their own used or damaged pallets, Industry insiders recommend pallet leasing services. With such services, responsibility for repairing damaged pallets and getting rid of those that cannot be repaired falls with the pooling company, not the individual pallet user.

The two leading pallet poolers in the country, Orlando, FL-based CHEP, and Houston-based IFCO Systems, both have very comprehensive recycling programs in place. CHEP, which regularly has more than 265 million pallets and containers in circulation in 42 countries, recycles its own blue pallets, reportedly eliminating more than 6 million tons of wood from the solid waste stream each year. IFCO reportedly recycles 45 million wood pallets each year.

Pallet recycling has also taken hold in other industry segments as well. Aluminum pallets, like those produced by Rhino Pallets, Detroit Lakes, MN, are 100 percent recyclable, just like any other metal. And, the returns are great.

"If a customer has an aluminum recycling program in the area, he can take it there and the returns are really good," says Doug Christians, general manager of Rhino Pallets. "We hope our pallets never get to that level, but if they do, a company can fetch whatever the current aluminum prices are now for recycling."

Aluminum recyclers are currently paying about 50-60 cents per pound, so a standard 40-inch-by-48-inch pallet that weighs 37 pounds could fetch as much anywhere from $18 to about $22 at the recycling lot.

Rhino can handle the recycling as well, "but the cost of getting the pallets back to us are probably cost prohibitive," says Christians. "It's much more cost effective for them to take them to the local recycler on their own."

And because aluminum pallets are far more durable than wood ones, it could also mean fewer trips to the recycler. "We have companies that have well over 100 turns with our pallets. They can last anywhere from five to 10 years or more, depending on how they are handled," Christians says. "They are not indestructible by any means, but they are easy to repair. All a company has to do is just give us a call and we'll send them the replacement parts and they can do the repair themselves."

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