Pallets – fact and fiction (or how to tell a safe pallet from a toxic one)…

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Are my pallets safe to Use?

Every time we run a post showing a new use for pallets, we get lots of comments about pallets not being safe to use. Never has an industry suffered from so many myths. Yes, there are pallets treated with methyl bromide, but in most countries, these are now hard to find.

Safe or dangerous?
Safe or dangerous?

Specifically, pallets treated with methyl bromide are banned in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Canada (and probably many other countries). Methyl bromide is banned because it is a dangerous chemical – dangerous to both people and the environment. Work health and safety regulations in the above countries preclude the handling of pallets treated with this poison. Instead, pallets are either heat treated, or untreated.

Pallets Fact and Fiction

So let’s start with a basic premise… every pallet is safe to use BUT it depends on what you intend to use it for!  Various pyrethrins and the fungicide, propiconazole are common treatments for timber pallets. It’s also possible that harmful materials or chemicals may have been spilled on the pallet timber and been absorbed by it during use. Is that bad? Well, not if you intend to use the pallet as a fence and grow flowers in it. Vegetables, on the other hand, may be a concern.

Click on any image to start lightbox display. Use your Esc key to close the lightbox.8-)

OK – so how do you know which is which.

If the pallet has been made for export, it will, in almost all cases, be heat treated. Heat treatment (56°C for softwood and 60°C for hardwood) is effective at killing any pests that may have taken up residence in the timber. Note again that there is always the possibility that something toxic has been spilt on a pallet. For this reason, it makes sense to know what the pallet has carried or, at least, where the pallet has come from.

Domestic grade, single use pallets
Domestic grade, single use pallets

There are two types of pallets – one time use and multiple use. One time use pallets are typically made of cheap softwood while multiple use pallets are usually made from hardwood, or increasingly, from plastics and composites. Examples of one-time use pallets are those used by furniture manufacturers, white good manufacturers and board manufacturers. Examples of multiple use pallets are of those used by brick or paver manufacturers and heavy industry. These pallets are easy to recognise as they have coloured edges. They are also usually branded as being the property of the “XYZ Ltd”.

Multi-use, branded pallets
Multi-use, branded pallets

How do I know my pallet has not been treated with methyl bromide?

There are 500 million pallets made in the USA alone each year! How many would China make? Or Europe? Obviously, some of these pallets will not be safe to use – perhaps many. But that leaves vast numbers that are safe to use in your projects. So how do you tell the difference? If you haven’t realised it yet, I’m about to share a secret with you… we live in a global economy.

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  • guest

    Just put same gasoline on them and then in fire for 2-3 seconds :)
    If there are same chemicals on them will burn

    • Using petrol in that way probably does incinerate the chemicals but might just incinerate you. It’s not something I would recommend. If in doubt, don’t use the pallet.

  • Thanks for this information, especialy that pallets treated with methyl bromide are banned in New Zealand. I love the idea of vertical gardens, but it’s been difficult to get good information on how to tell if pallets are treated in New Zealand. I now have something to go on. Thanks again!

    • Happy to help, Lesley. Send us some pics of your project when done :)

  • Robin Morrill

    Thanks so much for the info on pallets. I see so many beautiful things made from them. Now I have the knowledge to know which ones can be used and which ones to leave behind.

    • You’re welcome Robin. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out ‘there’.

  • Chris Redmon

    I disagree in that counting on the symbols or lack thereof making them acceptable for use as food growth devices. I know for a fact that there are three companies in my area that use those pallets for numerous things within their industrial facilities after they acquire them as part of incoming packaging. Just the idea that many of those things have been in an industrial plant makes them questionable since there are a myriad of ways they may have been used or stored before discarded, sold or re-used for shipping. Personally, I would never recommend using pallets for anything that might allow whatever has been on them to leach into whatever plants or indoor uses you may have in mind. Would you really want to have your kids or animals having direct contact with something that may have been stored or used in an industrial setting? Not me. I recommend outdoor uses only and not near plants you’ll eat or flowers you’ll use for interior arrangements.

    • Hi Chris,

      The article covers the ‘if in doubt as to origin or use’ question in the third and then again, in the fourth paragraphs. What you are ignoring is that the vast majority of one time use pallets end up in landfill after that single use. In fact, very few single use pallets have the structural integrity for ‘industrial use’. They are simply not designed to last. A simple example would be a sofa shipped from China. It sits on a pallet. It arrives at the store and is removed from the pallet. The pallet is then dumped. Walk out the back of any furniture retailer if in doubt.

      The bottom line is that the vast majority of pallets are safe to use as long as a modicum of common-sense is used.

  • Angela Herremans

    Thank you for the information, when I recycled the pallets used to bring in the solar panels a few years back it never even crossed my mind of any of that stuff, oops oh well I was lucky :-)
    We built a colour bond shed for me so that I can turn it into my sewing room :-) and I decided I wanted a wooden floor and went looking at all the different products on the market, well let’s say they were well out of my budget.
    our next door neighbour had been installing solar panle units and the came in on specially built pallets to ensure the panels arrived safe. They were 10mm plywood boards on blocks double sided so Dad and I spent a few weeks putting the pallets through the bench saw so that we could cut off the blocks which left us with all different sized panels of wood. The skinny bits we used as the floor spacers so that there is a pocket of air between the floor and the concert which we lined with the flooring floor underlay for the added protection to the wood and heat loss :-)
    As we were cutting the pallets apart we found that not all of them were at 10mm some were 12 some 13 and a few other odd ones too :-) once we glued and nailed the spacers to the flooring then tired to put the thicker ones into the middle of the floor and the 10mm all around the outer part of the rooms :-)
    We then hired a blooming big floor drum sander and then spent the another week sanding the floor to one level :-)
    Once that was done I then spent two weeks on a trolley bed Dad made me so I could lay on my tummy and with the mixture of PVA glue and the extra fine sawdust I then filled the gaps between the panels and once dry I then spent the rest of the time with my hand held sander and 280 grit paper sanding the floor to a perfect smoothness so I could then use the watered down wood stain I mixed for the perfect honey coloured floor that I wanted and once that was all dry I then redid the sanding as this did lift the fibres in the wood which was not good for varnishing once that was done on went the first tin of varnish waited for that to dry and then again on the belly and sanded for another 3 days for a nice smothe finish ready for the second coat :-) we did have to end up doing three coats in the end but it was worth all the time I spent sanding as I now have an amazing wooden floor with so many variations in it which has given it it’s an amazing finish :-)
    But the very best part of it all, was I had a lot of fun making my very own wooden floor and there is not another one like it anywhere because of what we had used to make it with, I do have pictures but I will need to hunt them out as they are not on my iPad.

    • Hi Angela,
      Wonderful story. Thanks! Do you have any photo’s?

      DW

  • Thank´s God!
    In Chile, don´t Used that Pallets :D

    Bye!

  • Great article. Will definitely pass details on. Thanks for sharing. Caz ;-0

  • Methyl bromide is used to kill live infestation by insects including larva and eggs. It is not a permanent treatment. Methyl bromide is a gas and treatment is carried out in an enclosed space. Once that space is opened up, the methyl bromide will volatilize off and it is extremely (repeat extremely) unlikely that and methyl bromide can be found by chemical analysis. Methyl bromide is no longer (generally) used to sterilize pallets because of its greenhouse gas impact.

    More information about permanent treatments can be found on the web site of the Timber Preservers’ Association of Australia.

    Be very careful about rejecting chemicals. Paracetamol a common headache chemical, can kill if taken in high enough dosage. The chemicals used in ‘permanent treatments’ are used at low dosage and have to pass high health standards before they are approved for use.