While the public is only just becoming aware of the dangers facing North American trees from pest infestations such as the Emerald Ash Borer, pallet makers have been waiting to see how this will affect shipping and pallet making for over a decade.
ISPM-15, or International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures No. 15, is “an international guideline for regulating wood packaging materials for international shipments, with the objective of controlling undesirable translocation of quarantined biological pests.” At issue is the health of not only trees, but entire ecospheres at risk of being introduced to species with no natural predators. In Michigan we are familiar with a similar problem in our Great Lakes. Zebra mussels, originally believed to have arrived here in the ballast water of ocean-going ships traveling via the St. Lawrence Seaway, threaten the health of our greatest resource and are responsible for the near extinction of many native species. This is because, absent any natural enemies, the zebra mussel and the emerald ash borer can wreak havoc unchecked.
This relates to pallets and shipping because experts fear that previous methods used to destroy the spread of biological pests, including heat treatment and methyl bromide application, will ultimately not be enough to stop the these pests from reproducing and continuing to spread.
Therefore, a new solution, bark free pallets, has been promoted by leaders in Australia, the European Union, and others from the original group of the 132 countries that agreed to implement ISPM-15. As with many other solutions, however, implementing bark-free pallet standards is more complicated than it might first appear.
The first complication is financial. Currently nearly all packaged products shipped in the United States are shipped on pallets, and 92 percent of the pallets used are made of wood. Pallet manufacturers and other industries that rely on wood are already struggling to find hardwood supplies in a tight market and remain competitive enough to retain customers and attract new ones. Pallets are often manufactured from wood that would otherwise be scrapped, and this includes the bark layer. Eliminating this supply will drive prices up higher. Additionally, following bark-free wood recommendations would require every pallet producer to purchase expensive equipment to comply.
A further expense would be the cost of compliance itself, as regulation generates both paperwork and government oversight positions which ultimately are paid for by the customer via higher prices.
Another complication is practical: what exactly does “bark-free” mean? Felled trees have different shapes and bark varies in thickness and toughness as well. Very frequently debarked logs will still contain some element of bark, regardless of what form a sawn log takes, whether board, cant, or pallet. Either the industry must accept that debarking often has imperfect results, or regulatory standards about debarking also must be adopted – driving up prices of logs even more.
Given these factors and a competitive economic landscape, many pallet manufacturers have decided to wait and see what further research and communication will reveal about the proposed solutions to the wood pest problem before making radical changes to their operations.