Pallets: A Brand New Approach to Recycling

Recently, a long-time, loyal reader of this publication, Bob Footlik of Footlik & Associates, knowing my penchant for pallet parables, sent me an article that piqued my interest. The account first appeared in Wood & Wood Products magazine's July 2004 issu

This Cinderella story turns on how hardwood pallets, diverted from the landfills, are showing up in the homes of the rich and famous.

The end of the story is, after two years of intensive work on the part of many people, a palletto-hardwood flooring process has been developed and a premium product is now on the market. Meanwhile, tons of material have been diverted from landfills. I tracked down Dave Lowles, project manager, Landof-Sky Waste Reduction Partners in Asheville, North Carolina, to get the story behind the story.

This a great tale, not only for what it's doing to divert from the waste stream otherwise usable material, but to serve as an example of what people can achieve when they cooperate and focus on the better good. It has a sense of community about it.

Wood pallets get a bad rap, from me and others, when maybe we should train our sights on the users of the pallets. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that about 38 percent of the hardwood trees harvested in this country go into pallets, making them the most common product created from hardwood lumber. The Forest Service estimates that 170,000,000 pallets are sent to landfills annually.

Phil Arman, who works for the USDA at Virginia Tech University, brought together a consortium of academics, civilians, regional and national political agencies, along with folks from private industry, to see what could be done with the valuable resource known as used pallets.

The idea of using pallets for quality flooring material, however, bumps against the business of rebuilding, recycling if you will, pallets. Rebuilt pallets are a $3.5 billion industry in the U.S. Still, a large percentage of that gorgeous oak, walnut and maple is viewed as trash.

Lowles says the project is laden with good and bad news. "We've been so successful," he says with a chuckle, "I'm having trouble keeping up with the paper work. So many people want information. And the demand for pallets is running so high, we're having trouble getting raw material." He adds that sales of flooring material are doing well and it's becoming fashionable to have wood floors, pock-marked with nail holes. Who'd a thunk it?

There are many players in this story and some of the leading characters are North Carolina State University's Department of Wood and Paper Science, the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention and a supporting cast of manufacturers and recyclers. The program works this way: Manufacturers, such as Oaks Unlimited, purchase pallets and deck boards from recyclers. Sometimes the pallets are already dismantled. If not, nails have to be removed before the boards can be processed. When grading, cutting and kilndrying are completed, the endmatching of boards, along with tongue-and-groove cuts, are made.

Boards are prefinished and shipped. When the flooring, nee pallets, reaches its final resting place, it's handled like any other flooring material. The pallet floors are typically more consistent in thickness than some lumber created specifically for flooring.

"We did all the market testing beforehand," says Lowles, "and we learned that people look at those nail holes as a true mark of recycled authenticity." This cache has appeal for people wanting to use (and wanting to promote the fact that they use) recycled products. "It sells on its looks," says Lowles.

Want to get involved? Think before sending those wood pallets off to the landfill. Look in the phone book for pallet recyclers. Check the National Wood Pallet and Container Association's Web page (www.nwpca.org) for recyclers. If you're interested in transforming pallets into flooring material, call Dave Lowles, (828) 698-4926, or drop him an e-mail at dclowles@ bellsouth.net.

A neighborhood, or community, is a circular thing. It always comes back to the individual. And living together in a community is an art more than a science. Now, in a way, both are being reflected in highly polished oak floors made from what were once deemed useless wood pallets.

Clyde E. Witt,
executive editor
[email protected]

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