Skidding to a better place

The expression “skid row” means a run down place you don’t want to be. How come we’re discussing it in a recycling blog?

A “skid” is also another term for a pallet. You put loads on pallets and “skid” the pallet, thus not damaging the load. Pallets are usually made of wood. When you consider that the average, annual number of trees cut down to make wood pallets is 10 million, we’re talking serious environmental impact.

What got me thinking about this was Pepsi Co.’s announcement that it would eventually be shipping all of its products (Pepsi, Gatorade, Quaker Foods and Tropicana) on plastic pallets once its wood pallets were exhausted.

Does anyone realize the newspaper\print industry is rapidly beating Pepsi, among others, to the punch? And we’re not talking Tropicana Fruit Punch either!

The Herald receives much of its various products on plastic pallets. Most notably are advertising inserts which come in on pallets made by the Indianapolis-based firm Perfect Pallets.

What’s the advantage to the environment?

Wood, while still the most versatile building material in pallet form, lasts an average of one and half years. It is the eighth largest component in landfills. Sort of makes sense when you think about it. Why unload the stuff you are throwing away?

When you get to the dumpsite just shove the load and the pallet over the side. It’s wood. It will rot, eventually, so we are talking disposal problem.

Another element of wood is that very rotting situation. Wood, especially wet or soft fiber trees, are susceptible to boring insects. This not only weakens the pallet, causing it to be replaced more often, but it becomes a site for undesirable insects. Transportation of the pests around the country can be an environmental issue.

The fibrous nature of wood itself can lead to some issues. Whatever gets spilled on the platform tends to become impregnated within it.

That’s why pallets are slowly evolving into plastics. Plastic, you say, that’s REALLY not a friend of the environment! Well it is and it isn’t.

Polyethylene terephithalate, or PET, is a polymer resin that can come from synthetic sources. It is partially made up of recycled pop bottles, milk/water jugs, other food and beverage containers and even the old, worn pallets themselves.

A broken, sun split, crushed plastic pallet properly returned to the point of origin can be cut up, melted down and remade into a pallet once again. Try doing that with wood.

Given the metamorphosis process, these things can last indefinitely. Since they are lighter than wood and can make several more trips, the fossil fuel it takes to move them can be way less than transporting conventional wood ones.

Plastic is also easier to clean. This means, when properly done, you’re not going to have contaminants floating up out of pulpy fibers causing leaching problem.

Wet wood, whether from rain or pesky contaminants, also weighs more. This weight problem can cause more fossil fuel usage when you underestimate what a load might weigh. Plastic, which is pretty much impervious, weighs the same. Calculating load weights allows users to be the most efficient.

Now, to be fair, we haven’t hit on an entirely “perfect pallet” system here. There is a considerable cost to make plastics. There are emissions released in the manufacturing of them to consider. Energy is involved.

With plastics we are doing what we must do now: making an informed choice. Printers and newspapers are choosing to cut down fewer trees. In using something over and over -- and dare I stress it -- over again, printers are making a choice to conserve. The closer we get to systems that are “closed loops,” where we don’t need to completely remake the entire thing, (a wood shipping platform, in this case) every time we want to use it, the better off the environment is.

So here at your local newspaper, we store, return and reuse plastic pallets. The Herald also recycles water bottles and other plastics that can become pallets of the future. Maybe we ship the boxload of used plastic items back on a plastic pallet. Maybe one time the plastic “gets to ride” in the box. Maybe the next time it bears the weight of the load and comes skidding across the ground!

Skid row then could become a place we do want to be.

-- Ron Buckland is the Herald’s post press department maintenance coordinator and has worked at the paper since 1976.