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Pallets to Garden Products: Value-added Wood Recycling Works

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A business venture of St. Paul’s Neighborhood Energy Consortium demonstrates reuse can generate as much as $3,000/ton.

AT ANY MOMENT, there may be over two billion wood pallets in circulation throughout the United States, half of which are used only once. Others are reused over longer periods of time, but eventually almost all — nearly 300 million in the U.S. last year — wind up in the waste stream. Only about ten percent are recycled; the rest meet their fate in one of two ways: incineration or landfill.

As fuel, pallets are worth about $35/ton; as mulch they can generate about $100/ton. However, WoodWins, a business venture of Minnesota’s St. Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium (NEC), is demonstrating that reuse can generate an even higher value — as much as $3,000/ton.

It all began five years ago when NEC, a nonprofit coalition of community organizations, wondered if it was possible to make use of some of the three million pallets and other woody residuals that were disposed of annually in Minnesota. With 15 years experience in successfully managing a residential curbside recycling program, NEC envisioned its recycling efforts taken to the next logical step — a locally based closed-loop business that would reclaim local waste wood and transform it into value-added products using an often underutilized source of labor — the disabled. Backed by three years of research, development and a diverse mix of public and private funding, NEC’s vision came to fruition in 1999 with the launch of WoodWins. Today, WoodWins is not only profitable, but is also turning out to be a model for other sustainable businesses.

When NEC conceived the idea back in 1996, manufacturing recycled products from reclaimed wood was — and still is — a relatively unexplored innovation in the recycling industry. In order to produce high quality garden products such as planters, window boxes, garden benches, bird feeders and bird houses, NEC had to overcome numerous problems. Sourcing wastewood feedstock was one. WoodWins not only had to identify sources but also had to coordinate pickup using its single truck and driver. Pallet recyclers, landfills, and construction demolition sites were all potential (although often inconsistent) sources. At many sites, they had to sort through piles of wood to pick out what was usable. This often amounted to less than a full load. To avoid the logistics and extra time required by picking up smaller amounts more frequently, WoodWins worked to find sources that could set aside truckload quantities of wood. According to program manager Alex Danovitch, many suppliers now presort their wood residuals, setting aside what they think WoodWins can use.

MEETING QUALITY NEEDS

Quality was another problem encountered. “We are very cautious to take only the wood we can use in order to avoid disposal costs,” notes Danovitch. “We also try to identify sources that are fairly consistent and have a high percentage of usable lumber.” The criteria for “usability” include the wood species (hardwoods such as oak and ash, and redwood and cedar) and the quality of lumber (degree of rot, paint, dirt, roughness, and how many nails and other material need to be removed). “A lot of effort goes into educating the waste generator on what we can use and figuring out a cost-effective way for them to sort and set aside this material for us.”

To deal with the uncertainty associated with such a diverse and variable supply chain, WoodWins began partnering with The Green Institute’s DeConstruction Service (a Minneapolis nonprofit salvager of deconstructed lumber) and several local pallet recyclers. The pallet recyclers, such as Gruber Pallet in nearby White Bear Lake, provide hardwood components that are unsuitable for reuse in their reconditioned pallets. Approximately 75 percent of WoodWins’ recovered-wood feedstock comes from these hardwood pieces. Redwood and cedar make up the remaining 25 percent, most of which is obtained from DeConstruction Services. Over nine tons of wood were diverted from the waste stream last year and incorporated into WoodWins’ product line.

Manufacturing difficulties overshadowed feedstock supply logistics and quality problems. Using recovered wood can pose safety concerns — nails have to be removed prior to planing, cutting and sanding operations. In WoodWins’ case, feedstock from the pallet recyclers does not come denailed as it does from DeConstruction Services. During pallet reconditioning, nails are cut to allow disassembly, but they are not removed. To address these safety concerns, WoodWins consulted Colonial Craft of Roseville, Minnesota.

A leader in promoting sustainable forestry practices with over 30 years of experience with wood product design and manufacturing, Colonial Craft played a key role in assisting with the technical design of the manufacturing process. They designed a punch press for denailing operations that only engages when the operators’ hands are safely out of the way. They also designed a fixture for the undercutting chopsaw that keeps operators’ hands away from the saw blade and guards against kickback if the sawblade should ever come in contact with an undetected nail.

Production operations generate little waste for two reasons. First, WoodWins tries not to source wood that can’t be used. Second, to deal with the problem of nonuniformly-sized feedstock, they developed scaleable designs — product dimensions can be resized according to the available feedstock resulting in unique, one-off production runs. According to Danovitch, WoodWins has spent many hours studying feedstock utilization and how to get the most out of a board. As a result, they developed products that can incorporate small pieces of scrap. What can’t be used is generally ground for mulch or compost.

Overall, WoodWins has succeeded in using recovered wood as a feedstock, proving that its manufacturing process works and that the products sell. Equipment modifications and increased sourcing efficiencies have lowered overall production costs 60 percent during the first year of operation. Wholesale distribution to garden centers and specialty stores grossed $35,000 last year and is expected to reach $300,000 by 2002, at which time WoodWins plans on expanding its line to include outdoor furniture and its distribution to include retail sales.

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