As we quest toward a plastic-free shipping operation, there is a glaring issue that remains. Pallet wrap.
If you've ever worked in receiving or peeked in the back of a semi-truck making deliveries of pallets, you've probably seen what looks like industrial cling wrap wound around stacks of cartons. It serves a purpose – without it, the truck would take the first curve or bump in the road and all manner of wares would go careening off the walls, crashing and breaking everywhere. And no one wants to be delivered a pile of broken glass or damaged goods, but it's still a lot more disposable plastic than we'd like.
Let's take a closer look.
Pallet wrap is the industrial version of the cling wrap we're all trying to keep from using in our kitchens as we work to minimize the amount of plastic in our lives. In the home, there are tons of decent alternatives – lids for your glass baking pan, reusable silicone covers and bags, beeswax cloth wraps, the list goes on and on. Industrially, however, the ridiculous truth is there really aren't any non-disposable plastic options, and that feels insane. We've searched, begged, and tried to find ways around it, but in our business, we interact with pallet wrap in 3 places: on pallets we receive from suppliers, on pallets we ship out, and on pallets on deep storage shelves.
Shipping + Receiving
In order to keep boxes safe during freight shipments, they need to be secured onto pallets. You can hold things down with steel, polypropylene and polyester strapping, but this requires a big expensive machine to apply, and the strapping is trash after one use anyway. Typically in order to ship the pallet in the back of a truck, even pallets with strapping need to be wrapped up in pallet wrap to stay safe and dry in transit. (You'd be surprised at how many leaks there are in the roofs of trucks).
In the Warehouse
Most warehouses, ours included, use huge metal shelves to store pallets vertically. For safety, all pallets have to be wrapped before they can be lifted off the ground because it's too easy for a box to slide off as the forklift moves pallets around, and even a 25 lb box falling from somewhere between 6 and 35 feet in the air could easily kill someone below. We like all of our employees and have a strict nobody-dies-in-a-workplace-safety-accident-EVER policy, so here again we find ourselves using plastic.
For use within the warehouse, there is one option that exists on the market, and it's really expensive. Reusable pallet wrappers are basically large mesh or reinforced material similar to a tarp. They attach using big velcro straps and they can be used to keep boxes from toppling off a pallet while on warehouse shelves. While they won't last forever, and they are still made of plastic, they will last considerably longer than the single use pallet wrap (10-ish years if we treat them well, maybe a little longer if we're lucky). They unfortunately can't be used for transport (boxes still go flying if you try to use one in the back of an 18 wheeler during transit), but they can be used to keep people safe at work.
So why aren't we using them in our warehouse right this second? Well, if we order them from a company in the USA it costs almost as much our payroll for an entire year. That's right, to keep from using plastic wrap on our pallets costs about the same as everyone's combined paycheck for a year. To import them from overseas costs about as much as two employees' combined yearly salary. We're working on getting there, but so far we haven't been able to afford them.
In total, we use about 35 rolls of pallet wrap in a year, and every single bit of it that gets used in our warehouse, plus any wrap from incoming shipments gets recycled through a partnership with Trex. (Trex turns single use plastic that would otherwise clog up our waterways into extremely durable decking.) Not only that, but we are also able to collect and recycle plastic bags from employee home use and all other plastic film we acquire in the course of normal operation. Last year we were able to divert over 700 lbs (!) of plastic bound for the landfill through our Trex recycling challenge and we received this nice bench as a prize.
We recognize that these aren't perfect solutions, and as always, we will continue to search for better, greener alternatives. In the meantime, we'll keep collecting and recycling everything we can as we save for our reusable pallet wrappers.
Most grocery stores have a place next to the front doors where they accept plastic film / plastic bags for recycling. The cool thing about these drop-off points is that you can bring any poly-bag, bread bag, plastic veggie wrap, plastic frozen food bags, bubble wrap, or even bubble mailer – not just plastic grocery bags. The bags just need to be clean and dry, and you have to remove any stickers. A good test to know whether the bag you're holding can be recycled, is to pull on it or push your thumb into it – does it stretch a little? If it's a plastic film that stretches, it can probably be recycled. Things that can't recycled with plastic film include hard plastics, anything that still has food on it, and anything that isn't 100% plastic.