On May 12, 2016, the USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory (USDA-FS-FPL) and NWPCA entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to re-new a partnership between the Federal government and the wooden pallet and container industry. The MOU will allow NWPCA and the FPL to partner on a variety of projects and explore potential areas of cooperation. Plans are already underway for the development of environmental product declarations (EPDs) for the wood pallet industry, establish innovative pilot projects to explore urban wood recovery, and for research and collaboration for NWPCA’s Pallet Design System™.

“It’s a natural partnership with great potential,” says Brent McClendon, NWPCA President and CEO. Adds Michael Ritter, FPL’s Assistant Director: “With the agreement, we have recognition that there are a number of potential opportunities where FPL and NWPCA can work together.”

“We were able to put the agreement together fairly quickly – in just a few months,” says Karen L. Martinson, Program Specialist, USDA Forest Products Laboratory, who worked as a liaison between the FPL and the NWPCA to help forge the new working relationship. “NWPCA was very easy to work with.” NWPCA’s Vice President of Advocacy and External Affairs agreed with Karen, “Having worked at USDA before, I knew there was a great fit, which makes it easy to partner with a preeminent organization like the USDA-FS-FPL. I’m very happy this worked out and paves the way for great research and benefits for USDA and the industry as a whole.”

Essentially, the new deal enables the NWPCA to tap into the FPL’s research services to secure environmental certifications it needs to open new markets for wood packaging. The work is also mutually beneficial for the USDA-FS-FPL. By working with a global industry the lab strengthens its background and depth in the wood pallet and wood packaging industry.

“This new working arrangement brings robust research and the scientific clout this industry needs to address today’s and tomorrow’s critical issues – many of which are front-and-center in our Strategic Plan,” says Steve Mazza, NWPCA’s elected Board Chair.

NWPCA Director of Science & Technology Integration, Dr. Brad Gething, further explained the benefits of the new partnership, “FPL is the preeminent wood research facility in the U.S., which is matched by the quality of the scientists and engineers that work there. It’s a fantastic opportunity to tap this resource for the advancement of the pallet industry.”

From its perspective, the FPL sees the deal as a way to advance its core mission: find new opportunities to ensure wood from the nation’s forests is put to the best possible use. The wood pallet and wood packaging industry thrives on making efficient use of timber and reclaimed wood, so the possibilities for collaboration are far-reaching.

Specifically, one exciting initiative explores the use of urban wood materials for use in pallet and container manufacturing. It’s a hoped-for market change that could provide an alternative source of cost-effective raw material. Another example of potential collaboration: Sourcing felled wood from national forests ravaged by natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. “A hurricane like Sandy can result in a great deal of stock that pallet manufacturers could use,” FPL’s Ritter says.

In addition, FPL is also looking to offload a fair quantity of thin trees — 10″ in diameter or less — which have proliferated in the nation’s forests for decades, and have been major catalyst behind the uptick in forest fires in the U.S. Indeed, culling thin trees from the nation’s overcrowded forests has been one of the FPL’s key priorities since the early nineties (www.fpl.fs.fed.us/research/research_emphasis_areas/introduction.php?rea_id=5).

“The increased funding that’s been needed for firefighting as a result of these trees is a real problem,” says FPL’s Ritter.

Yet another major benefit of the new working agreement is anticipated research collaboration with FPL with the NWPCA’s Pallet Design System™ software (PDS) (www.palletcentral.com), according to John McLeod Director of the Pallet Design System, NWPCA.

PDS is an objective tool used by pallet buyers to verify that a pallet maker’s specs for a pallet will meet unit load bearing requirements, PDS has been in use since 1984.

Continually upgraded since that time, PDS represents the latest data, engineering and research on the relationship between the design and performance of wood pallets.

Essentially, PDS enables a user to completely spec a pallet in terms of type, size and style according to a desired wood species — whether the wood species originated from North America, South America or Europe. The PDS also has great use as a pallet marketing tool, offering significant amounts of data and text explanations that can be directly printed out from the software and provided to customers with specific questions about how their pallets will be built.

These days, PDS is used by 420 pallet makers in more than 24 countries, according to McLeod. “The new MOU between NWPCA and the USDA Forest Products Lab will lead to very positive technical developments” with the PDS, McLeod says.

Meanwhile, FPL’s Ritter says the new working relationship between the two organizations should also make it easier for NWPCA members to do business with the federal government in innumerable ways.

“Agreements like these signal to other federal agencies that NWPCA has already been vetted as a reliable organization,” Ritter says.

The new close working relationship is also expected to spur other joint research efforts, Ritter says. “We’re looking to put together a list of pallet industry’s research needs,” he says.

One of the other ways the new relationship is expected to benefit NWPCA members will be an anticipated joint push by both organizations related to the USDA BioPreferred program. Getting NWPCA member products qualified to list as BioPreferred will require more research – including a study of the product lifecycle of pallets – something the NWPCA and the FPL have already begun immediately because of the signing of the MOU.

Launched five years ago, the BioPreferred certification program has pumped $369 billion in revenues into the U.S. economy and supports more than 4 million U.S. jobs, according to the USDA.

Currently, approximately 2,500 products carry the USDA BioPreferred label in more than 100 product categories. “Small businesses and global companies alike can continue to harness the power of America’s farms and forests to create new and innovative bio-based products that are used all around the world,” says Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary. Fortunately, wood as a construction material already has a lot going for it environmentally — it’s 100% environmentally biodegradable, FPL’s Ritter says.

McClendon concluded, “At NWPCA we are obviously excited about the joint partnership. The MOU will open new avenues for exchange of innovative ideas between the two organizations and create solid research that benefits the wooden pallet and wooden packaging industry, and its natural sustainability and winning durability position for supply chain logistics in the modern world.”

(Article published in PalletCentral magazine, July-August 2016, read this digital edition.)

Article written by Joe Dysart. Joe is an internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan. He may be reached at 646-233-4089Email or visit website.