3 - 2010

Don’t reuse wood pallets

wood pallets - don't recycle them

photo by waferboard

Regular readers here know I’m always up for turning something old into something new. But in the case of wood pallets — those seemingly tempting sources of free wood that sometimes linger outside stores — think twice before bringing them into your home.

If you’ve missed recent news reports, shipping pallets have been implicated in a couple of recent cases of bacterial and chemical contamination. Testing confirmed that pallets have issues, and the National Consumers League wants rules enacted, according to this article:

In the wake of the recent recall of E. coli-tainted romaine lettuce, the nation’s oldest consumer organization, the National Consumers League (NCL), is urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set minimum sanitary and safety standards for the “unregulated but crucial” pallets that are used to transport food throughout the United States.


The move by NCL comes following recent exploratory tests conducted by the organization on pallets to determine whether they are potential carriers of pathogens, as concerns grow about the link between pallets and contamination of food and pharmaceuticals. The consumer group tested pallets for foodborne pathogens, including E. coli and Listeria. The findings were alarming: 10 percent of the wood pallets tested had E. coli present (though not the most virulent strain, E. coli O157:H7).

What should consumers know?

First and foremost, tempting as they may be, DO NOT use pallets in your home. I received this information from a PR contact, which makes some thought-provoking points:

Used wood pallets are a highly sought-after commodity of hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers and woodworking enthusiasts. A simple Google search of “recycled wood pallets + woodworking” reveals scores of websites and blogs offering consumers ideas and plans for reusing wood pallets – everything from cutting boards, baby cribs, and toy wood blocks, to futons, chairs and coffee tables.  It’s a huge cottage industry, with a significant presence in New England, which is blithely unaware of the serious dangers posed by wood pallets. …


Wood pallets pose other dangerous risks. Contamination from chemicals used to treat wood pallets was cited in the recent voluntary recall of TYLENOL Arthritis pain reliever. The chemical contamination caused nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain in consumers. Wood pallets made with “engineered wood” components contain urea formaldehyde – a known carcinogen – which may come into contact with food under a variety of scenarios when it is stored and shipped on wooden pallets. Formaldehyde is also released into the air when it off-gases from pallets in storage and transportation compartments, posing a risk to the health of workers and consumers. Wood pallets are susceptible to insect infestation and require heat treatment or fumigation before they can be moved cross-border. Fumigation is often performed with methyl bromide, a highly toxic, ozone-depleting chemical.


Consumers must be made aware of the serious dangers presented by wood pallets, particularly when reusing wood pallets to make children’s toys. Imagine what might happen if a child chewed on a toy or furniture made from pest-infected, bacteria- and chemical-laden wood pallets?

What can shippers do instead?

This site makes the argument that plastic pallets are better because they can be better re-used and can be sanitized. I hate to urge anyone to use more plastic. However, this could be a great way to use recycled plastic, and some pallet manufacturers are doing so, although I can’t find statistics online. If you have a business that uses pallets, the Environmental Protection Agency has a cost calculator to help figure the price of using recycled wood or recycled plastic pallets, which are preferable to virgin wood pallets in environmental terms.

There is also an online petition circulating on this issue. It seems to be aimed at encouraging plastic pallets. If you’re interested, you can take a look at the petition here.

25 thoughts on “Don’t reuse wood pallets

  1. Carolyn

    This sounds like some PR from the company that makes the plastic palettes. Seems like there should be another solution, starting with just not using palettes to makes children’s toys and cribs.

  2. Adrienne

    The grocery store that I shop at started using some of these in the displays in the produce sections. They’re not actually touching any of the food… but they *stink*. Quite literally. It’s disgusting.

  3. Rob

    I must say I agree with Carolyn on this. It sounds like PR for the plastics companies. BUT on the other hand the wooden ones are made from Wood- an organic material- which could easily pick up the pathogens. God! What will I burn in my chimenea?

  4. Cheap Like Me

    @Carolyn and Rob – I think you’re right. Sorry if my post isn’t clear — I just think it’s a good idea to steer clear of re-using them for DIY projects, as lots of people do (after all, it’s hard to see them go to waste). If they can be replaced with some recycled material that weighs less than wood, great — but I’m not going to easily be convinced that making new plastic to replace these is a better option.

    @Adrienne – Maybe share the National Consumers League info with the store manager? Sounds like a bad idea to use them in produce …

  5. Toni

    This is interesting, but I feel a scare tactic nonetheless. I came across quite a few projects that included pallet and also ran across the scary websites. So I emailed NWPCA. Here is his response:


    If there are marks similar to the attachments, then the pallet is treated. But don’t worry since heat treatment (HT) and even methyl bromide (MB) fumigation leave no residue that are harmful to humans and animals.

    Technical Director
    National Wooden Pallet and Container Association (NWPCA)
    1421 Prince St, Suite 340, Alexandria, VA 22314-2805
    703-519-6104 tel
    703-519-4720 fax

  6. Condo Blues

    I’m guessing that the pallet would become contaminated by coming in contact with food already contaminated with E. coli or Listeria. I’m curious to know how another type of pallet wouldn’t become contaminated with E. coli or Listeria. Since wooden pallets are not reused often made to be used once by companies and then tossed why would they treat them with anything?

  7. Sir Poppin' Pallet

    I think that any risk to humans from a pallet contaminated with a harmful strain of E. coli is very low. I use pallets to make garden benches and I also burn the wood. Most pallets in this country are heat treated and are not treated with chemicals. One reason they’re treated is to kill any invasive, destructive insects and their eggs.

  8. Jeannette

    I asked walmart for some of their shipping pallets and was told they recycle them.I do not believe there is anything wrong with suing the wood pallets.I don’t believe it because there is no way that the FDA would approve food being packed onto something that can harm you just from having it in your house.

  9. The Justice

    I’m also with Carolyn this is a PR attempt to use more plastic. Wow!!, you must be hurting to sell some plastic pallets and continue the destruction of the planet.

    FYI wood pallets CAN get heat treated to remove any thing that might be harmful, that way making them safe.

    You must NOT KNOW any thing about export wood pallet regulations or about pallet recycling which is 10,000.00 times better than plastic.

    I will recommend you do your research before you post things online you have no idea about.

    GOOD LUCK TRYING TO SELL YOUR PLASTIC PALLETS AND CONTINUE POLLUTING OUR EARTH, you and your family also live on planet earth I assume?

  10. cheaplikeme

    Hi The Justice – I appreciate your commenting, but I would appreciate it even more if you would avoid personal insults and keep your tone civil. If you read closely, you’ll see my post says “I hate to urge anyone to use more plastic” — but I also think it’s smart for people to be cautious about re-using wood pallets inside the home, as some cheapsters might be tempted to do. If you want to write a guest post explaining your views (in a civil tone) I would be interested in publishing it.

  11. art

    The chemicals used to treat pallets are not in Tylenol because they were shipped on pallets. And the only other comment is that processed wood pallets may use formaldehyde. no real danger from real wood pallets described!

  12. Vern

    I ship and receive freight everyday and our company has stacks of pallets. I have wanted to hang on to some pallets for projects, but I’m always supicious of what was contained on the pallet. Some stuff leaks. The floors of the trucks/trailers are often covered with “stuff”. If you are detemined to re-use pallets, pick one with the HT[heat treated] stamp on it. Pallets must be heat treated to ship over seas. The heat treating kills any bugs and other stuff that may have taken residence in the wood. Try to pick a pallet that has been used once and kept dry. Heat treating may not prevent infestation down the road. Also its best to know what the pallet was loaded with. Would you really want to build a crib from a pallet used to transport lead acid batteries? Just be careful!

  13. Allie

    I’ll second Art’s words about the contaminated Tylenol. I am a pharmacy technician and the Tylenol was contaminated before it was sealed into bottles and shipped.

    Another thing is food is not shipped in direct contact with the wood pallets – though some produce is shipped in wooden boxes.

    It’s always a good idea to check more than one source for information (especially when some of the information is coming from a person in PR.)

    For those who are interested in using the pallets for furniture, etc. I’d definitely steer clear of any that might have met with harmful chemicals (as Vern mentioned). As far as bacterial contaminants are concerned, I would suggest using an anti-bacterial/anti-microbial agent (bleach or green products) to cleanse the surface as good as possible (allow for penetration of the wood.) Then afterward use a sealer of some sort (polyurethane or varnish if you want a natural look or an enamel paint if you prefer.)
    Also, I would never recommend using anything other than ‘new’ wood if you are making a crib/cradle/high chair. Babies are the most susceptible to any kind of chemical contaminates for several reasons:
    1. Their bodies are very small, so what would be a small dose of chemicals for an adult is a very large dose for an infant.
    2. Babies have a very different metabolism than adults do and their bodies don’t filter contaminates the way ours do.
    3. This is the most obvious point – babies put everything they can into their mouths and the mucus membranes of our mouths allow many more chemicals to enter into our bloodstream than our skin alone.

  14. Kevin

    I am using pallets for a couple of projects around my house – outside. I made a double compost bin and am planning on building a playground for my kids, largely out of pallets. I power washed the pallets, the wood is in very good shape, and they had been used to ship things to my school so they weren’t transporting anything too toxic in (at least not in their last shipment).

    I think that with proper preparation pallets are fine for use around the house. I like what Allie said, clean them well and seal them if you are going to be very close to them. Beyond that – they’re good wood.

  15. JeoNijo

    I used wood pallets before to make furniture but i painted them with varnish for a nice glossy end finish.

    I was actually thinking making design furniture with recycled material like wood pallets and recycled glass in my free time and try to sell it. But is there a law of some sort for making furniture out of these items and selling them to people? Even if i would start a company or do it in my free time? I would think sealing it with a couple of paint layers would make it safe inside the house. Even if you have a fire in a house plastic furniture is way more harmful right?

    I love to use wood pallets not because there cheap but I love the used look they have and that makes the furniture come out so more alive. And I like the fact that most pallets bin all over the world meaning that the furniture seen a lot of corners of the world (Not pretty corners though lol).

  16. Carola

    I live in the Bahamas on a small island and have a hard time to find good wood in the lumbaryard for raised beds in the garden. However pallets are floating overseas and end up on our beaches everyday so I was tempted to use them. But I am still a little paranoid about using wood that I don’t know anything about. Thank you for the post, it was helpful to me.

  17. yoursurprise-bellatio-2

    I am curious to find out what blog platform you have been using? I’m having some small security issues with my latest blog and I would like to find something more safeguarded. Do you have any suggestions?

  18. Derek

    The meat departments and butcher shops used to use wood to cut meat for hundreds (possibly thousands) of years until somebody decided that it wasn’t safe/sanitary anymore.

    The butcher shops removed all the wood butcher blocks and replaced them with plastics. Plastics have to be power sprayed and sanitized to keep bacterias from growing on the cutting panels because they are too sterile of a material. The cut groves in the boards often are rinsed over and harbor bacteria like e-coli, salmonella…(Much like aquarium filters, pond filters. Bacteria loves plastics.) Anyway, what they are discovering that wood cutting boards that are properly maintained have natural enzymes in the woods that kill bacteria and they can be cleaned and oiled which also kill harmful bacteria… Plastic makes nice pallets. However, plastic will not be cleaned or sanitized in most warehouses, and since they outlast wood pallets, they will make a e-coli problem worse because of a longer exposure/use. (IMO.)

    I would be more worried about spider eggs and grease on the pallets before I would worry about e-coli on a pallet. There is probably more e-coli in the bathroom in a person’s home than on a wood pallet.

    Chemicals on a wood pallet? Most pallets are untreated lumber because it is cheaper not to treat the pallet and chuck it in the dumpster when the company is finished with it. It’s not like they have creosote like a rail tie. Skids are not made for longevity. What would be the purpose of spraying a pallet with any kind of chemical. I would suspect that any lumber that would be treated, is treated with the same chemicals that treat lumber you can buy from your hardware/home improvement store. Unless, the pallets are used to ship chemicals, I don’t think this would be a real concern either.

    I have yet to see they guys who sell and recondition pallets at a place you buy pallets from keel over and die, or be rushed to the hospital because they are surrounded by tainted pallets 8 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week…

    Pallets are made from the lowest grade wood materials because pallets are disposable.

    Use them. Re-purpose, recycle, recondition…

    (The last thing we need are the plastic pallets hitting the landfill because re-purposing plastics is way more harmful to your health than wood.)

  19. Katherine

    Is no one concerned with the chemicals in plastics? BPA is an extremely dangerous chemical that plastics can emit into food, aside from the fact that plastics cannot be truly recycled or biodegrade? If we need to discuss the wood pallet issues, I think that’s important, but it can’t be under the assumption that plastic is a permissible substitute…

  20. mezcraft

    Am I the only person who thinks there are more than two options for pallets here? Wood and plastic are the two options? really? Not that they are any better than plastic, but the company I work for has a lot of metal ones. They last longer so they buy those. Not to open a new can of worms here – but does anybody know anything about metal pallets? I assume they too, could be made out of recycled materials? If companies are looking for alternatives to wood, can we not also say that metal is at least an option?

  21. cheaplikeme

    For some reason, this post generates more controversy than anything on this blog. Because this is not a pallet blog, I’m going to close comments now. Thanks everyone for sharing your viewpoint.

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