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Used Pallets No Longer on the Skids

Every week, employees at Bering's stack 40 to 50 wooden pallets in the alley behind the upscale Houston hardware store and gift shop. Like thousands of retailers across the country, Bering's simply has no use for the heavy, often beat-up platforms that accompany the daily deliveries of inventory, store manager Alan Gamble says.

But somebody else clearly does. The piles behind the store rarely seem to grow much more than waist-high.

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"There are guys that have trucks [and] what they do is drive around behind shopping centers and pick up pallets," Mr. Gamble says. "I always assume they have someone to buy them."

It is a good, if understated, assumption.

Fact is, those trash pickers have plenty of customers. Houston alone has 35 pallet companies, at least half of which buy and sell used skids.

Expect that ratio to grow as the nation's recycling movement continues to pick up steam. That should appeal to environmental critics concerned that 40 percent of the hardwood lumber harvested in the United States annually - that's 4.6 billion board feet - is used to make new pallets, which heretofore have been viewed as disposable after one trip on the produce trailer.

"I saw one last summer that was dated December of 1988," says Jane Nordstrom, director of communications for the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, a 550-member organization that endorses pallet recycling as good economics.

By using intact boards to replace broken ones, one pallet can be cannibalized to repair, and thus recycle, several others. Pallets that cannot be repaired or used to repair others can be ground up for mulch, animal bedding, composite lumber, or boiler fuel. The metal screws, nails and other fasteners can be removed and sold as scrap.

Just follow the skids stacked behind Bering's: "Pickers" haul away the store's pallets for free, saving Bering's disposal fees charged by landfills. Used-pallet dealers will pay a modest $1 to $1.50 for each decent pallet the pickers drop off. After the necessary repairs and cleaning, those recycled pallets can then be sold to a shipping company for, say, $6 each. "A trend now is partnering between pallet users and pallet suppliers, to set up pallet retrieval systems and managing their pallet pools," Nordstrom says. "What recyclers do is have contractual relations with stores to drop off a trailer or make regular pickups."

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Though recycling has yet to slow the production of new pallets in this country, which the association estimates at 400 to 500 million each year, Nordstrom says it will as more companies recognize the economic value of the wooden platforms.

Big City Forest Inc. is one of those companies, but its owners are taking the recycling a step further. In addition to repairing and selling used pallets, the Bronx-based company uses pallet wood to build butcher-block style furniture, hardwood flooring, architectural woodwork, planters and plaques.

There are no consumers out there for reclaimed wood furniture, so no one knew it could be done," says Resa A. Dimino, spokeswoman for Bronx 2000, the parent company of Big City Forest. "We really had to invent the whole process from start to end."

Now in its second year, the company dismantles used pallets, re-mills the wood into strips and glues them together. Because more than 100 different species of trees are used to make pallets around the world, a conference table produced by Big City Forest may contain oak, pine, mahogany, cherry, poplar, and birch.

"You really can't tell the difference between the wood we use and virgin wood, except for the nail holes," Dimino says, adding with a laugh that "the distressed look" is in.

Manufacturers are quick to point out that the rough-cut wood used in the pallets is generally of a lower grade that probably would otherwise be discarded.

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