From Landfill to Living Room: Turning Wooden Pallets Into Flooring

From Landfill to Living Room: Turning Wooden Pallets Into Flooring

From dross to dance floor; from garbage to golden flooring; from the landfill to the foyer: Whichever phrase you favor, it’s what researchers at North Carolina State University are doing with the ubiquitous -- and usually cast-off -- wooden pallet.

Working with specialists at the USDA Forest Service and the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, a nonprofit organization in Asheville, the NC State wood and paper scientists convert pallets into attractive flooring.

Like many useful and necessary items, most wooden pallets fulfill their function and are thoughtlessly discarded. That’s an expensive waste of resources: Phil Araman of the USDA Forest Service estimates that 38 percent of America’s hardwood lumber production, or 4.5 billion board feet, is used in pallet manufacturing, making it the single largest use of hardwood lumber.

That means that pallets also challenge the nation’s overburdened landfills. An estimated 170 million of the rough platforms for merchandise, no longer needed after their contents are unloaded, become two percent of all municipal solid waste, and more than three percent of landfills’ construction and demolition waste. The problem is worst in the South, which buries 75 percent of the nation’s wood waste.

So scientists and extension specialists in NC State’s Department of Wood and Paper Science are working to turn recycled wooden pallets into polished wooden floors --as well as a handsome foundation for economic development.

According to Urs Buehlmann, assistant professor of wood products at NC State, the project’s ultimate goal is to create a new industry for North Carolina. “The pallet-to-flooring project expands on existing research and represents a multidisciplinary effort to build a commercially viable, sustainable and successful pallet-flooring enterprise,” he said.

Recycling pallets is already a big business, Araman says, generating about $3.5 billion annually across the nation. But much of the pallets’ valuable hardwood ends up buried or as mulch, animal bedding and boiler fuel, not as quality, value-added products. “We want to capture the most value from these used pallets, and convert them into building components and building materials such as flooring, paneling, furniture, cabinets and similar products,” Buehlmann said.

In pursuit of that goal, Buehlmann and his colleagues have formed a public partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the N.C. Division of Pollution Prevention, the Land-of-Sky Regional Council’s Waste Reduction Partners in Asheville, NC State’s Department of Wood and Paper Science, and several North Carolina manufacturers and recyclers.

Funding from the EPA and the Community and Rural Development program helped support pilot projects and led to installation of pilot flooring in commercial properties.

Although the team’s goals are “green,” their approach fully acknowledges the economic realities of the pallet industry and its recyclers. “Profit is the predominant driver for all recycling enterprises,” says Buehlmann, “including rubber, vinyl, glass, metal, paper and wood. The best way to get material out of the waste stream is to find the potential value in it and exploit it for profit.”

To reassure skeptical investors, the NC State specialists developed a business plan that described the likely markets, identified design and cost constraints, and demonstrated the most efficient ways to select and process their materials. Wood flooring proved to be firm ground for the project.

“Wood flooring is simple to manufacture,” Buehlmann says. “It’s a $1.7 billion-per-year business. It’s often made from the same wood used in pallets, and the region already has the infrastructure to produce and market flooring. Finally, trends in high-end flooring are favorable.”

Even the occasional flaws, such as nail holes, in the recycled wood turn out to be selling points, said David Lowles of Waste Reduction Partners. “Our market study showed that the nail holes are a mark of recycled authenticity, and that recycled wood is of great interest to a number of custom builders and end customers alike,” he said. “The marketing of this flooring is therefore directed at designers, architects and owners who are concerned about using natural resources.”

Recycled flooring, said Lowles, is installed using the same guidelines and procedures as traditional wood flooring.

Making unwanted pallets into desirable floors is practical, the process makes good business sense, and government and industry partners validate the project’s objectives. Oaks Unlimited in Waynesville, an industrial operation for recycling discarded pallets into wood flooring, has already opened in western North Carolina, creating jobs in a region hard-hit by recent plant closings.

“Financial support from the EPA and the Community and Rural Development program achieved its purpose -- to ease environmental problems and to create economic opportunity in the state,” says Buehlmann. “Right now, we have more demand than we can satisfy, which indicates the economic potential of this idea.”

The wood and paper specialists are confident, therefore, that their gleaming wood floors not only help preserve forests, reduce waste and recycle valuable resources, but are also a solid foundation for North Carolina entrepreneurs -- and an eye-pleasing path from the landfill to the living room.