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Building Greener Blog: What is the social value of a pallet?

After a customer posed questions about supply chain traceability, our Sustainability Manager Rosi Fieldson has taken a look at where our pallets go…

It is a special sense of closure felt by auditors to reach the end of an audit trail in a place where only good things are happening. This week, after concerns being raised by a customer on one of our recent projects I decided to trace back our wood waste reuse provider to find out what really happens.

We have been using the National Wood Waste Network (http://www.communitywoodrecycling.org.uk/) to take pallets and other bulky timber waste for a few years and are increasing the amount of waste dealt with in this way every year. Although the scheme may appear to offer a slightly more expensive service, they can clearly pack far more broken pallets in a caged truck than we do in a normal builders skip.

It would be nice if there weren’t so many unwanted pallets in the industry but despite the reusability of a good standardised pallet there are significant quantities. Add to that quantity timber used to protect items in transit, hoarding panels, hardboard used to protect newly laid flooring and offcuts. It might be surprising to know that last year we had enough timber taken off sites as waste to have been able to create 1 million recycled bird boxes. Our business model isn’t really set up to go into mass production of bird boxes so we need to do something else with that wood. That’s where social enterprise comes in.

When I visited Humber Wood Recycling (http://www.humberwoodrecycling.org.uk/) I learned that much of the wood arriving from construction sites is pretty beaten up and has limited reuse value. Their main resource comes from crates unwanted by importers at Hull docks. Most of their customers present them with images of pallet furniture found online at sites like Pinterest. (https://www.pinterest.com/Recyclart/pallets-ideas-projects/) Whilst their premises are leased from the city council and place limitations on storage and production capacity, they’d like to expand to a third collection vehicle to increase their income stream from collections.

Bob, the manager of Humber Wood Recycling, set up the social enterprise with his own capital after a previous career in the Police. He wanted to work with timber do something meaningful. Currently HWR employ 6 people who, apart from Bob, were at one point volunteers (work placements, retired or carers). A further 13 people volunteer in addition to the paid staff, who have come to the scheme from a range of avenues. Despite being hit with two break-ins recently I found a happy and productive workforce busy creating raised planters for a special order. The team are often drawn from disadvantaged circumstances and may gain work elsewhere after training and gaining qualifications, others stay on to help mentor the next intake.

Although Bob is clearly very motivated and passionate about his cause he admitted that his policing background had left him fairly cynical about reasons why people “drop out of the system”. His conversion is truly inspiring and he firmly believes that the opportunities to lead social and environmental initiatives hand in hand are both compelling and rewarding for all of those involved.

Putting a value on waste in purely monetary terms is limiting and just comparing the cost of a skip to the cost of a reuse collection may not always break even. Nationally the network claim that every 10 tonnes of wood provides one month of paid employment – so if we managed to divert all of ours this way it could result in at least 8 people being in work each year. However just looking at the model at Humber Wood Recycling; each truck load of timber (replacing a conventional 16 yard skip) could offer £1830 of “social value”. So each pallet could be worth 10 times more to society if reused rather than scrapped. This is not very scientific and based on very notional UK statistics of the benefits of paid employment, but it has to make sense to avoid wasting thousands of trees worth of timber every year.

What’s more, the pallet aesthetic is still very fashionable and there is plenty of scope for creative people to upscale the desirability and price bracket market of the output products. If there is a network member in your area, please take the time to pop in; there may be just the perfect bench, blackboard or planter for you and you can go home smug in knowledge that you have been part of a quiet but very significant revolution.

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