Change the Pallet: How Adam Pener is Disrupting Transportation One Pallet at a Time

adam pener
Adam Pener, Photo Courtesy John Valls, Photographer
April 13, 2018

By Annabel Epstein

When thinking about reducing carbon emissions, obvious solutions come to mind: buy local to decrease carbon footprint; switch to electric cars; and use public transportation. But what about all the millions of goods that are transported every day across the US? When Adam Pener, who holds a Master’s degree in International Economics from GW, joined Green Ox Pallet technology, a start-up making lightweight corrugated pallets, he saw an opportunity to disrupt the logistics world and make it cleaner, cheaper, and better.

Consider the lowly shipping pallet. Millions of times a day, companies receive and send goods loaded on pallets. Overwhelmingly, these pallets are made of wood and weigh about 50 pounds. Extra weight means more carbon emissions, and less available weight on the truck for the actual goods. Switching from wooden pallets to corrugated cardboard pallets, which weigh only about 10 pounds, could reduce CO2 emissions by 35 million metric tons per year in added pallet weight alone. For perspective, that’s the equivalent of shutting down 8.7 coal-fired power plants for one year, according to Pener.

“It just doesn’t make any sense, when you can save money and reduce your carbon footprint and reduce worker injuries,” said Pener. “I came to the realization that the market was acting irrationally.”

So, Pener founded Change the Pallet, a non-profit focused on opening “the U.S. market to a ‘green technology’ that has the power to reduce CO2 emissions by hundreds of millions of metric tons by transporting more product on fewer trucks and planes.” Pener realized that for companies to switch from wooden pallets to cardboard ones, he needed to educate and advocate on the issue to change the status quo.

“If GW changes the pallet, ultimately we are not talking about anything consequential in terms of emissions, but it is of tremendous importance from a symbolism and first-actor perspective. If the Washington Post runs a story about it, we are closer to somebody in the federal government saying, ‘Wait a second, we can cut emissions and save billions of dollars [by changing the pallet],’” said Pener.

In 2012, IKEA decided to make the switch and directed its more than 1000 global suppliers – spanning 51 countries – to begin shipping to their distribution centers on cardboard pallets. This monumental change resulted in 15 percent fewer trucks necessary to ship the same amount of product, resulting in 75,000 fewer metric tons of CO2 emissions produced per year.

Pener hopes that other major corporations, like Walmart and Target and Costco will make the switch just like IKEA did. His biggest goal though: the federal government.

“IKEA has proven this. IKEA buys 34 million corrugated pallets per year, which is nothing compared to what the federal government could buy. So if you go and buy 34 million corrugated pallets per year they don’t cost $12, they cost $6. That is less than what wood pallets cost,” he said.

Currently, he’s working on getting colleges and universities that write the checks to tell vendors to ship on lightweight, recyclable pallets. Pener believes that the market will respond to demand. His own alma mater, Haverford College already committed to this and asked companies that send pallets to campus to ship on lightweight, recyclable corrugated pallets instead of wood. To get GW to sign on to this, send a letter to the administration here.

“Did placing recycling bins in major airports change the world? If you just look at Reagan or Dulles putting them in it doesn’t mean much, but when you look at sustainability, when you look at climate change, what has to happen is to attain a critical mass of first adopters that are driving the idea because it is the right thing to do,” Pener said. “That serves as a springboard to the market.”

To find out more about Change the Pallet and see how you can advocate to make the switch, check out the website here.