Upcycled Wooden Pallets: Green Resource or Toxic Trend?

updated Mar 11, 2020
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Upcycling projects with wooden shipping pallets are ubiquitous and incredibly trendy these days. Everywhere you look in the blogosphere, clever DIYers are crafting sofas, desks, beds, headboards, bookshelves, walls, and even hardwood flooring out of recycled pallets, and turning these old and ugly salvage finds into attractive home decor. But do you really know what you’re bringing into your home when you rescue a pallet from the dumpster?

A cabinetmaker and blogger named Nick, who has seen many a pallet come and go through his warehouse, offered a compelling case for why you should not be reusing wooden pallets in your home, no matter how creative or cute.

Among his points listed:

  • In the process of loading, transporting, and unloading, pallets often spend some time outdoors and are “exposed to water, all manner of vermin and insects, not to mention bird droppings and other nastiness.”
  • After last year’s E. coli outbreak on romaine lettuce, the National Consumers League called for stricter safety standards for the “unregulated but crucial” pallets used to transport food throughout the United States. NCL tested pallets for foodborne pathogens and found that 10% tested positive for E.coli and 2.9% tested positive for Listeria, one of the most virulent foodborne pathogens with a 20% to 30% rate of mortality.
  • You may remember that the year before that, McNeil Consumer Healthcare issued a recall of its Tylenol products based on customer complaints of “moldy, musty or mildew-like odor that was associated with nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea.” The odor was attributed to a chemical called 2,4,6-tribromoanisole (TBA), which is a byproduct of the fungicide used to treat the wooden pallets their products shipped on.
  • If your wooden pallets contain low-grade engineered wood or cardboard, they may also contain formaldehyde and harbor all kinds of critters you don’t want to know about.

But what if you insist that your pallets are clean and safe? Unfortunately, you never really know where your pallets originated, as they’re often recycled or refurbished for multiple use. Many sources advise reusing only pallets stamped with “HT” (meaning “Heat Treated,” or kiln-dried), which are generally safer than chemically-treated pallets. But if the pallets are left outside in any amount of humidity or rain before you get your hands on them, that moisture can quickly become a breeding ground for mold. Even if you spend hours scrubbing and sanding down your pallets, bacteria can still linger within that porous piece of wood.

All that said, pallets do make good scavenged materials for outdoor projects like potting benches and compost bins, and perhaps that’s their best green purpose when it comes to repurposing. Given the potential risks, is it worth it to reuse a pallet in a more intimate space, like a bedroom?

If you’re not deterred and still want to upcycle a wooden pallet for your own DIY project, Funky Junk Interiors offers a few pointers for working safely with pallets — and knowing when to give ’em a pass.

What do you think of the pallet upcycling trend — are you inspired, or have you had enough? Do you think pallets belong in the home, or are they better suited for outside?

Related Posts:
• Pallet Pointers: How to Know Which Ones to Leave Behind
• Pallets as Building Material: So Many Options
• The Palettenpavillon: Ultimate Pallet Reuse