From my friend Matt Lungerhausen, a fascinating article on shipping pallets. I like the Georgia angle! If “whitewood” ever becomes obsolete, one thing to do with it is to turn it into mulch, as does Bo’s Pallets, a local business I drive by from time to time.
Although the technology was in place by the mid-1920s, pallets didn’t see widespread adoption until World War II, when the challenge of keeping eight million G.I.s supplied—“the most enormous single task of distribution ever accomplished anywhere,” according to one historian—gave new urgency to the science of materials handling. During the summer of 1941, at Fort Wayne, Indiana, the army staged a field test of various materials-handling contraptions, and the pallet–forklift combo trounced the competition. The Quartermaster General ordered a million pallets, and the domestic pallet industry was effectively born.
Military depots began by palletizing heavy, regularly shaped objects, such as tins of K-rations. But over the course of the war, these depots, facing shortages of time, space, and labor, brought more and more items under the regime of the pallet. The Quartermaster Depot in Jeffersonville, Indiana, which occupied ten city blocks, was particularly aggressive in this regard; during a six-month stretch in 1943, workers there discovered novel methods of palletizing mattresses, saddles, baled goods, pyramidal tents, and tanned cowhide, among other items. By the end of the war, Jeffersonville had palletized 98 percent of its stock.
The pallet industry boomed after the war, along with interstate highways, long-haul trucking, and the rise of a national consumer culture. The canneries of the Salinas Valley were early palletizers, followed by other grocery sectors, then the auto industry, then everything. In 1954, pallet manufacturers left the country’s wooden box association and founded their own trade group, the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association, or NWPCA. Its slogan: “Pallets move the world.” Sometime in the early 1970s, on a CBS news broadcast, John Kenneth Galbraith informed Dan Rather that pallets were the second-fastest-growing industry in America. “What are those?” Rather asked. Or so the legend goes.
The boom ultimately created a problem, because all of these pallets did not disappear when they reached their destinations. They piled up: on loading docks, in stockrooms, in landfills. Beginning in the late 1970s, people realized these used pallets might have value, and the pallet recycling industry was born. There was good money in recycling, especially in the early days. The supply of raw material was cheap, if not free, the capital investment was minimal, and the whole thing had an appealing simplicity: acquire pallets from wherever they end up, fix them up, sell them back to manufacturers. The service this new generation of recyclers provided was called “reverse logistics.”
CHEP, a subsidiary of Brambles Limited, an Australia-based multinational corporation, is the largest pallet business in the world. The company earned $3.5 billion in pallet-related revenues during fiscal year 2013, and in many markets has achieved pallet monopoly. CHEP’s roots stretch back to World War II, when the American military shipped millions of palletized loads to Australia. At the end of the war, those pallets were abandoned, and CHEP was formed out of this accumulation. After four decades of growth and expansion, the company entered the US market in 1990, in what amounted to an obscure case of military blowback.
Read the whole thing.