Part 2: Secondary and Tertiary Packaging in Municipal Solid Waste

Tertiary Packaging And Compass Continued…

Let’s start part two of our four-part series with some basic facts about packaging in Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). In 2011, the overall recovery of packaging material was at approximately 51% with corrugated board and steel leading the charge in terms of highest material recovery. The overall rate is deceiving because the highly recovered materials such as steel and corrugated board skew the average as seen in the graphs below (2013, US EPA 2011 Facts and Figures Fact Sheet) and in this great infographic from the U.S. EPA.

In this post, I’d like to focus on the types of packaging that work in the background to bring the huge assortment of products we buy (fresh and packaged food, cosmetics, detergent, medicine, car parts, clothing, shoes, sporting goods, etc. ) to the shops we frequent. These packages have no fancy font, color, imagery or shape to catch your eye. In fact, many of them are plain brown corrugated boxes that make up the bulk of secondary packages and are recovered at a rate of about 91%. This recovered fiber is reused to make many types of paper products including new corrugated boxes. On the tertiary packaging front, wood plays a prominent role in the form of pallets and crates. Pallets are the workhorses of industrial packaging and come in a large variety of configurations to accommodate the various industrial specifications.

Companies such as CHEP manage many wood pallet configurations as a pooled resource with relatively long life span. These pallets are used and repaired many times to maximize the investment in material, cost, and design. Pallets also come in expendable variety that are typically used only once or a few times and then discarded. It is the expendable variety that we see in the back of grocery stores or the big box stores. These pallets sometimes find their way into the MSW and are included in the data above as “wood.”

Every year, 1.9 billion wooden pallets are in circulation in the United States, transporting a variety of goods.[1] Depending on the way the pallets are manufactured and managed, their life span and possibly their fate at end of useful life varies. Managed or pooled pallets are repaired multiple times to extend the life of the asset. They are sturdier to begin with to accommodate a relatively longer life. They may be broken down into parts to be reused to repair other pallets in the pool. On the other hand, expendable pallets may not be as sturdy as reusable types. The material investment is not managed as an asset and hence has a higher probability of disposal via landfill or incineration.

So, where do all the pallets go? 

  • Recycle – Wood from pallets is often mulched and used as landscape material. Some pallets are creatively recycled into useful household craft. See next article for examples from the Three Beagle Workshop.
  • Reuse – pallets are collected, repaired, and sold in a secondary market.
  • Incinerate – some fraction of wood pallets end up at waste to energy (WtE) facilities where the materials are incinerated and the resultant energy is used for heat or electricity generation
  • Dispose – to landfill

In the next installment, we will look at pallets in a more creative light and see what happens to some of pallets in circulation.

[1] 2013, IFCO., accessed 19 August 2013.



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