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Environmental impacts of wooden, plastic, and wood-polymer composite pallet: a life cycle assessment approach

Waste recycling is one of the essential tools for the European Union’s transition towards a circular economy. One of the possibilities for recycling wood and plastic waste is to utilise it to produce composite product. This study analyses the environmental impacts of producing composite pallets made of wood and plastic waste from construction and demolition activities in Finland. It also compares these impacts with conventional wooden and plastic pallets made of virgin materials.

The global pallet market can be classified based on materials, sizes, and management strategies (Deviatkin et al. 2019). Among various segments of pallets, wooden pallets dominate the market share, followed by plastic pallets (Leblanc 2020). Wooden pallets are inexpensive and can easily be manufactured and repaired compared to rackable plastic pallets. One of the most significant downsides of wooden pallets is the cost to forests (Retallack 2019). Furthermore, wooden pallets are heavier than plastic pallets, imposing an environmental burden on freight shipment. Even though plastic pallets are lighter than wooden pallets, plastic pallets’ production is an energy-intensive process. In addition, repairing plastic pallets is impossible because the materials have to be melted down and remoulded in the plastic pallet repairing process.

According to International Organization for Standardization (ISO), life cycle assessment (LCA) is one of the environmental management techniques that “addresses the environmental aspects and potential environmental impacts throughout a product’s life cycle from raw material acquisition through production, use, end-of-life treatment, recycling, and final disposal” (EN ISO 14040:2006; EN ISO 14044:2006). Several LCA studies have been conducted on pallets focusing on pallet manufacturing, management strategies and supply chains, repair intensity, and pallets manufactured from various materials, such as wood, virgin plastic, cardboard, and waste plastic. Gasol et al. (2008) conducted an LCA study to compare the environmental performance of wooden pallets with high reuse intensity and low reuse intensity in the European context, and with the findings showing that due to transportation, high reuse intensity pallets have more adverse impacts on climate change than low reuse intensity pallets. Bengtsson and Logie (2015) performed an LCA comparing one-way wooden pallets, disposable compressed cardboard pallets, pooled softwood pallets, and plastic stackable pallets in Australia and China. The study results pointed out that pooled softwood pallets have the minimum environmental impact among all types of studied pallets. Tornese et al. (2018) examined pallets’ economic and climate change impacts, demonstrating that manufacturing a pallet causes more damage to the environment than repairing a pallet. The study also identified that the cross-docking system has equivalent emissions as the take-back system due to higher transportation distance. Almeida and Bengtsson (2017) compared the LCA of waste plastic-based pallets with wooden pallets and virgin plastic-based pallets and demonstrated that plastic waste-derived pallets outperform all other alternatives. Franklin Associates (2007) compared the environmental impacts of pooled pallets versus non-pooled pallets. The study indicated that pooled pallets have less of an environmental burden than non-pooled pallets. Kočí (2019) studied the environmental impact of wooden pallets, primary plastic pallets, and secondary plastic pallets. The study found that wooden pallets have a better environmental impact than primary and secondary plastic pallets if energy recovery occurs. Furthermore, the study also showed that the weight of the pallet plays a significant role on its total environmental impact.

Table 1 specifies the key parameters of the studied pallets in their baseline scenario. Wooden pallets are made of virgin wood, which is a mixture of softwood and hardwood as specific to Finnish conditions. The studied wooden pallets were block-type pallets, which are commonly used in Europe. Based on the review of LCA studies of wooden and lightweight plastic pallet by Deviatkin et al. (2019), the expected lifetime of the wooden pallets is 20 cycles, yet the number ranged between 5 and 30 cycles in most of the publications reviewed. The repair need of 7 cycles was estimated based on the mass of produced EUR pallets in Finland (3.2 × 103 kg), alongside with repaired (25 × 103 kg) and reused (167 × 103 kg). The expert views from a Finnish pallet pooling company suggested that the expected lifetime of the wooden pallets is somewhat higher, whereas the repair need for the pallets occurs on average after every 12 cycles. The variations in the expected lifetime of the pallets were examined in the scenario analysis of this study. It was assumed that, at the EoL, 90% of wooden pallets are incinerated, whereas 10% are used as a bulking agent in composting facilities.

The plastic and WPC pallets are identical in structure and production method. Plastic pallets are manufactured using injection moulding, whereas WPC pallets are produced by extrusion followed by a compression moulding process. Both pallets are made to allow their nesting, thus saving the space occupied by the pallets. The exact height occupied by wooden stackable pallets can fit 1.7 times more plastic or WPC pallets. According to the literature on plastic pallets, plastic pallets are more durable than wooden pallets (Deviatkin et al. 2019). The expected lifetime of Double Sided Plastic Pallets could be 66 cycles, whereas the lifetime ranges from 50–100 in most of the studies reviewed (Deviatkin et al. 2019). In this study, the lifetime of plastic pallets was considered to be 66 cycles by following the review study conducted by Deviatkin et al. (2019). The WPC pallets were assumed to be of comparable properties as plastic pallets in these terms. Plastic and WPC pallets are suitable for demanding applications, such as those with expected exposure to water, or specific industrial demands, like those of the pharmaceutical industry. Such features of plastic and WPC pallets are, however, not considered in this study. Once damaged, neither plastic nor WPC pallets can be repaired. 

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