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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.

Methods

Two different life cycle assessment methods were used: attributional life cycle assessment and consequential life cycle assessment. In both of the life cycle assessment studies, 1000 trips were considered as the functional unit. Furthermore, end-of-life allocation formula such as 0:100 with a credit system had been used in this study. This study also used sensitivity analysis and normalisation calculation to determine the best performing pallet.

Result and discussion

In the attributional cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment, wood-polymer composite pallets had the lowest environmental impact in abiotic depletion potential (fossil), acidification potential, eutrophication potential, global warming potential (including biogenic carbon), global warming potential (including biogenic carbon) with indirect land-use change, and ozone depletion potential. In contrast, wooden pallets showed the lowest impact on global warming potential (excluding biogenic carbon). In the consequential life cycle assessment, wood-polymer composite pallets showed the best environmental impact in all impact categories. In both attributional and consequential life cycle assessments, plastic pallet had the maximum impact. The sensitivity analysis and normalisation calculation showed that wood-polymer composite pallets can be a better choice over plastic and wooden pallet.

Conclusions

The overall results of the pallets depends on the methodological approach of the LCA. However, it can be concluded that the wood-polymer composite pallet can be a better choice over the plastic pallet and, in most cases, over the wooden pallet. This study will be of use to the pallet industry and relevant stakeholders.

Pallets are used for storing, protecting, and transporting freight. They are the most common base for handling and moving the unit load, carried by materials handling units, such as forklifts. The pallet market is growing due to the rising standard of goods transportation, the adoption of modern material handling units in different industries, and market demand for palletised goods (McCrea 2016). It was estimated that the global pallet market reached 6.87 billion units in 2018 (Nichols 2020). More than 600 million European Pallets Association (EPAL) approved pallets are available to the global logistics industry. In 2019, 123 million wooden EPAL pallets and other carriers were produced, which is 1.2 million more compared to 2018 (EPAL 2020).

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.

Waste recycling is one of the pathways taken by the European Union to move towards a circular economy, as highlighted in the circular economy action plan (European Commission 2020). The central idea of a circular economy is to minimise the consumption of virgin materials, which means that an item that can be recycled should not be landfilled or incinerated. The EU is planning to recycle 50% plastic and 25% wood waste by 2025, which will increase to 55% for plastic and 30% for wood by 2030 (European Commission, 2018). By following the EU’s target, Finland’s objective is to fortify its role as a pioneer in the circular economy by implementing the strategic programme for circular economy (Ministry of Employment and the Economy 2021). The transition to a circular economy is essential for Finland to strengthen its export-driven economy with minimum environmental impact.

The environmental benefits of recycled-based plastic products are well known and quantifiable (WRAP 2019). Also, materials made from wood waste can deliver low carbon-based products with less pressure on forests (WWF 2016). One of the possibilities for reducing the environmental burden of plastic and wood waste is to utilise these wastes for wood-polymer composite (WPC) products, such as WPC pallets. However, analysing the environmental performance of WPC pallets requires a complete life cycle analysis. Furthermore, it is important to consider that different materials have different life expectancies, reuse capabilities, and recyclability.

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’ 

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