Pallets To Butcher-Block

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Deep in the South Bronx a small company is making a big impact on forest preservation, waste reduction, and furniture design. And that's only part of the story.

Every year in the United States 1.5 billion wooden pallets are used in the shipment of consumer goods. Those pallets account for nearly half of the annual domestic hardwood timber harvest. After only a few uses, the pallets are discarded, incinerated or chipped, meaning that thousands of feet of reusable oak, cherry, maple, rosewood, and mahogany are wasted.

Big City Forest is recycling nearly every scrap of this wood and making profits in the process. The company is in the unique position of not having to pay for the wood'just the opposite, in fact. Other companies are paying Big City Forest to take the unwanted pallets off their hands. Landfills often refuse to accept pallets or charge substantial fees, while Big City Forest is charging only 75 cents apiece to accept pallets dropped at its door.

David Muchnick, who heads the company, could make an easy profit by simply chipping the wood, standard practice for hundreds of pallet recyclers, yet he saw beauty in the swirling grains and rich hues of the wood. He also saw bigger profits. Chips are worth just $30 a ton, but if the pallet wood is turned into flooring it is worth $1,200 a ton, and as furniture it is worth $8,000 a ton.

Butcher-block tables from Big City Forest sell for $750 at trendy New York stores, and the company's oak flooring was used by the National Home Builders' Association in model homes built to display products with environmental benefits. The least valuable wood is reassembled into new pallets, sold for pressed-wood board, or burned in the company furnace to heat the building. Only a little sawdust ends up in the dumpster.

In just three years Muchnick has tripled his work force, tripled his work area, and provided training in wood-working skills to 200 residents of this economically depressed area. Next, he is considering franchising his business to other cities, both here and abroad, where wood pallets are plentiful.

The New York Times
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Linda is responsible for the PERC web sites, media relations, the national journalism conference, and the media fellows program. She is author of Forest Fires, part of a series of  environmental education books for high school students. She also wrote and produced Square One, a newsletter that introduced grassroots environmentalists to market...
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