Currently, there are about 2 billion pallets circulated between warehouses, manufacturers, and retailers in the United States alone. 500 Million new ones are made every year to replace the ones that are worn out. The most pressing issue of the industry is that the majority of these pallets are intended as single-use. Galvanized nails that are notoriously difficult to remove keep the wooden blocks together, which means that most of them end up in landfills.
Many companies, big and small, are trying to turn the tide of this immense waste, particularly since pallet manufacturing absorbs at least half of the yearly harvest of hardwood in the U.S. Knowing the type(s) and size(s) of the wood blocks used in pallets can help you plan your very own pallet recycling operations.
Pallet Wood Sizes
The standard GMA-pallet (Grocery Manufacturers Association) size is 40in x 48in (1016×1219 cm). This type is the most widespread in the US, as approximately 30% of all new wooden pallets produced every year conform to the GMA measurements. Although they tend to be made of different types of woods, the average pallet weighs about 37lb (17kg) and is about 6 ½ in tall (17cm). In order to be GMA-approved, they have to have a minimum load-bearing capacity of 2,500 lb (1133kg), which is why they’re mostly used in the food retail industry.
The deck boards on top of GMA pallets are 3 ¼ in wide (8.3cm) and 0.6in thick (1.5cm). Depending on the manufacturer, the boards can either be nailed on stringers or blocks. Because there is no universally accepted pallet size, pallet wood dimensions will also vary. Whenever you encounter a new pallet size, the first measurement is usually the width and the second is the length.
In addition, shipping companies usually classify pallets according to their degree of wear and tear into Grade A, B (#1, #2) and so on.
Pallet Wood Types
If you have any experience with handling pallets, you know that even GMA ones tend to have different weights, textures, and colors – disregarding any marks or features that might have been caused by extensive usage. Knowing the type of wood you’re dealing with can be just as important as the size of the pallet itself, since some species are easier to process and recycle.
The most widespread types of wood that are used by manufacturers of pallets intended for the shipping industry are oak and southern yellow pine (SYP). A study done by the USDA found that SYP was used in almost 19% of all wooden pallets, while oak came in a close second with a total of 17% of the manufactured pallet volume. However, both of these have further subspecies which can be quite different from one another.
For this reason, pallet manufacturers have divided their raw materials according to density as follows:
Softwood: Pine, Hemlock, Fir, Spruce, Cypress, and Cedar.
Low-density hardwood: Aspen, Willow, Linden, Walnut, and Poplar.
High-density hardwood: Oak, Maple, Cherry, Birch, Red Maple, Elm, Beech, Yellow Birch, and Ash.
Hardwood pallets will naturally be able to handle more weight, which is always a plus when considering shipping requirements. However, they’re also harder to manufacture due to their increased density. If you’re looking to salvage some of these, keep into account that Oak will weigh considerably more than Pine, for instance.
More importantly, many of the people who try to repurpose these pallets will, at one point or another, sand the surfaces. This is a necessary and crucial step in woodworking, as it removes splinters, smoothens the edges, and prepares the wood for staining and painting.
Softer, low-density woods will be easier to sand. They’ll take less time and cause less tear on your disc. At the other end of the spectrum, Red Maple might require you to burn through two or even three discs per pallet, which will slightly increase your expenses.
It Takes a Village
Recycling all of the pallets that end up in landfills won’t happen overnight. It’s a job that will take much more than a village – cities and nations. Some companies are helping out by developing pallets that are easier to recycle or by taking it upon themselves to recycle some of the worn out carriers.
The problem is that recycling pallets is not that profitable, so it’s likely that the surplus will continue to amass for some time. Taking up a woodworking hobby can help out a great deal. After all, it’s perfectly good wood that could be used to build any indoor piece of furniture you can think of.