Upcycling pallets: What Pinterest is not telling you and what you need to know

Pallets come in many shapes and sizes, depending on what they were built to transport. The standard size is 48-inches-by-40-inch­es. | Photo by Julia Bayly

It’s estimated there are 2 billion wooden shipping pallets moving merchandise every day in North America. That’s billion with a “b.”

And when these pallets are done being used as shipping platforms, they are increasingly being upcycled in projects that can be found on the social network Pinterest, which is like an online bulletin board where you can save (or “pin”) images, projects or videos to find them later. It differs from social media sites like Facebook or Instagram in that on Pinterest the focus is finding and organizing content generated by other people, not storing your own.

The projects you pin sure are tempting, but what should you know before you fall too deep into creating them in real life?

Where do I find pallets in real life?

Local retailers are a great place to find pallets. Businesses like motorcycle or snowmobile dealerships, small grocery stores, farm supply stores and furniture stores and constructions sites receive merchandise and materials that has been packed on pallets. And the owners may well be looking for a no-cost way to get rid of them.

Be sure to ask first and do not just help yourself to a pile of discarded pallets stacked outside a businesses or building site. Some businesses do have arrangements with outside recycling companies that come pick up the pallets.

But if the pallets are destined for the landfill, and if you approach that business owner or manager to politely ask if you can have one or more, there is a good possibility you will leave with the base material for your pallet project.

According to a 2018 study published by the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, 95 percent of all pallets produced in the United States are also reused as shipping platforms or recycled into something else.

So many people are upcycling these used pallets that they are among the most recycled item in the country, according to Stuart Isaacson, sales manager at PalletOne, a pallet-manufacturing company based in Florida.

Isaacson is based at the company’s Maine plant where they make pallets out of raw lumber and used pallets.

“Over here most of our pallets are on their 10th or 20th life,” Isaacson said. “We never give or sell any of our pallets to the public, we use them all here in-house.”

How do I know if pallets are safe to use?

But just because something is free and available does not mean it’s safe to use.

“People need to be aware of where a pallet came from and what was stored on it,” Isaacson said. “If it was used to ship vegetables there’s no problem with it, but if it was used to ship batteries it could have spilled battery acid on it and that is a problem.”

Every pallet has a history and if you know where and what to look for, there can be a lot of information on that pallet.

Quentin Jeandel has written extensively about pallet safety on the site 1001pallets.com and stresses the importance of using only clean pallets and to not try and guess what suspicious stains on a pallet could be, as many are used to transport toxic materials.

Nearly all pallets, according to Isaacson, are stamped with what look like random letters and symbols. But once you know what those all mean, your pallet’s provenance comes alive.

What are those stamps?

Most pallets are stamped with symbols and letters that contain a wealth of information. In this case, the symbols and letters  the pallet meets standards set by the IPPC or International Plant Protection Convention; the pallet has been heat treated — HT — and was treated in a registered facility in Mexico and given an identification number — MX-160. This pallet would be safe for a DIY project. | Photo by Julia Bayly

The first thing to look for is the IPPC stamp on the pallet. This means the pallet has meets the requirements of the International Plant Protection Convention and are safe for international shipping.

The IPPC standards require that pallets be constructed without chemicals and from materials that are free from invasive insects and plant diseases.

Next, you want to look for the stamps indicating how the pallet was treated: HT — heat treatment; KD — kiln dried; DB — debarked; or MB — Methyl Bromide.

“Never use a pallet if you see the ‘MB’ stamp,” Isaacson said. “That means it was treated with the toxic and carcinogenic chemical Methyl Bromide.”

The good news, according to Issacson, is that the industry pretty much stopped using that chemical about 30 years ago.

Rather, pallet manufacturers now use a treatment that heats pallets to 140-degrees fahrenheit for 30 minutes.

“That will kill any bugs or bug larvae in the wood,” Isaacson said. “Heat treated pallets are perfectly safe to handle.”

Also safe to handle are kiln dried pallets. These have been heated long enough to bring down the moisture content, prevent warping and kill off any fungus.

Pallets stamped DB for debarking means the lumber used to make that pallet had the bark removed and the pallet itself was likely not treated beyond that.

DB pallets, according to Jeandel, are chemical-free and safe to use.

Pallets may have other stamps or symbols indicating country of origin, manufacturers location and other industry information and if you are unsure of what any stamp means, it’s a good idea to pass up that particular pallet.

On its website, 1001pallets.com has a detailed breakdown of what the different symbols mean.

Are colored pallets safe?

Most pallets that find their way into DIYers’ talented hands are natural wood that has not been painted. But there are colored pallets out there and a pallet’s color has an origin story to tell, according to 1001pallets.com.

Red pallets manufactured in the US are made from high quality lumber, kiln dried, not chemically treated and undergo rigorous third-party inspections. They will be stamped with the letters PECO for the Pallet Exchange Company.

Red pallets from Europe will be stamped LPR for La Palette Rouge and are used for international shipping.

Blue pallets are stamped CHEP for Commonwealth Handling Equipment Pool from Australia while brown pallets are stamped IPP for Logipal from Europe.

Of the colored pallets, only the PECO pallets are guaranteed to be completely safe and in compliance with IPPC standards.

How do I safely pull apart a pallet?

Once you have established your pallet is safe to work with, it’s time to break it down into usable pieces, and that means taking some safety measures, Isaacson said.

“These are really basic precautions,” he said. “Use safety glasses, gloves and wear sturdy boots.”

Pallets are held together with blunt-ended nails, so a simple crowbar can be enough to pull one apart.

“Leverage is key when pulling apart a pallet,” Isaacson said. “Some people use a ‘pallet breaker’ which looks like a long, two-pronged fork.”

Pallet breakers are available from hardware outlets. Or you can make one yourself using plans and tutorials available online. Head back to Pinterest and search “pallet breakers.” From there, click on any of the hundreds of links that will take you to websites with tutorials or plans developed by individuals to make your own pallet breaking tool.

“When you’re pulling the pallet apart, it’s all about body position,” Isaacson said. “You never want to be pulling toward your face in case something comes unexpectedly loose and you hit yourself in your face.”

Once you have a pile of lumber that used to be a pallet, it’s time to get creating.

With a bit of pallet knowledge, some basic tools and elbow grease it would seem there is no end to what pallets can become.

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