Wooden pallets are a thing of the past if it is up to start-up Yellow Pallet. Just for the export of fruit from the tropics, 21 million pallets are needed each year. These are twice as polluting. Tropical countries do not have the right wood to make pallets. For one thing, wood is imported from the Amazon and subsequently shipped as pallets from the tropics to Europe. Not to mention the thousands of hectares of forest that are felled for them. Things can be done differently: With Yellow Pallets, made from banana fiber.
Banana plants grow fast and are abundantly available. “That makes them very suitable to make into pallets,” says Hein van Opstal, founder of Yellow Pallet. Their first factory is stationed in Costa Rica. The company supplies banana pallets to, for example, Chiquita and Agrofair, two of the largest fruit exporters in the world. The pallets are not yet made 100% out of banana fiber, as the planks are still made from wood. But the blocks between the planks are made out of compressed fiber from banana plants. This already saves eighteen percent on CO2 emissions. What’s more, it’s slightly cheaper than wood.
From idea to company
Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands focuses on agro-food and the living environment and has been researching banana plants for several years. Researcher Gert Kema and entrepreneur Hein van Opstal came into contact with each other through mutual contacts. They saw a gap in the market for banana pallets. They set up Yellow Pallet in 2012 with funding from StartLife, a Dutch foundation that in close cooperation with the university guides spin-offs and start-ups to the market. “This is a prime example of an experienced entrepreneur developing part of the research into a product and bringing it to the market,” says StartLife director Jan Meiling. This knowledge was transferred from the university to the company so that it could be further developed.
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Special banana plants
In Van Opstal‘s opinion, the – economic – advantages of banana fibre pallets are obvious. “Banana plants grow four times faster than trees,” he states. “So with every hectare of banana plantation we plant, we save three hectares of forest. Yellow Pallet has its own ten-hectare banana plantation and together with local farmers also works on the rest of the banana trunks. “On our own plantation, we grow a special kind of banana plant that is resistant to diseases,” he explains. ” This means that we don’t use any pesticides, which makes the crop extremely sustainable.”
The trunks are crushed to extract the fibers from the banana plant. The moisture that is released during this process goes back to the plantation. “This is how we have a minimal loss of nutritional components,” says Van Opstal. “The soil also suffers less as a result.” Which is why the banana plants for the pallets can be grown on less fertile soil.
In order to make the crops even more sustainable in the future, Yellow Pallet, together with fruit exporter Agrofair, is looking into the opportunities for strip cropping. “By placing different crops between the banana plants, we can reduce the risk of disease for plantations,” Van Opstal points out. Chances of a disease spreading quickly over the plantation are then lower. “Moreover, it is good for biodiversity.” The start-up also utilizes the waste from fruit plantations.
About 1200 hectares of banana plantations will be needed in order to make all the pallets that Costa Rica needs each year – about 6 million – from banana fiber. Van Opstal: “When you consider that there are 40,000 hectares of banana plantations in the country, what are we talking about?”
New pallet research
Over the coming year, Yellow Pallet wants to make the first pallets entirely from banana fiber. The start-up is now working on a test project in Europe to achieve this. “We will not be able to work with planks and blocks if we are going to make the entire pallet from banana fiber. This is not solid enough,” says Van Opstal. This is why he is now looking at the feasibility of making the pallet in one piece. “We are currently researching the ideal shape, then we want to use a mold to press the banana fiber and the resin into a pallet. Van Opstal expects the first full pallet of banana fiber within the next year.
Yellow Pallet regularly outsources research at the university, for example on sustainable resin to press banana fibers into the right shape.
“That ensures a long-term collaboration,” says Meiling of StartLife. “WUR was involved from the start of Yellow Pallet as a research partner for the validation of the prototype.” According to Meiling, these kinds of interactions between the university and young companies are crucial when it comes to driving innovation. For universities, it is an important task to transfer knowledge to society. One of the ways to do this is through a spin-off. “Consequently, lots of companies will soon be able to use more sustainable pallets,” says Meiling. “That’s a huge motivation for the university to help spin-offs grow.”
Yellow Pallet is growing fast. The company is scaling up its factory in Costa Rica. It should triple in a year’s time. In addition, Van Opstal also wants to build a large warehouse and office space. “We want to make 1.7 million pallets per year in that factory,” the founder states.
Yellow Pallet is aiming to sell factories to tropical countries that export a lot of fruit, such as the Philippines, Guatemala, Colombia and Ecuador. “We then take care of the factories, goods, services and maintenance. In the long run, we also want to sell the factory in Costa Rica to a local party,” says Van Opstal. “Due to the large volumes in the numerous factories, we are able to achieve major savings on CO2 emissions and also prevent deforestation.”
According to Van Opstal, the company also receives inquiries from Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil and China for banana pallet factories. Banana plants also grow there and there is a great need for pallets as well. Van Opstal: “If we can make banana pallets in all countries where banana plants grow, we can already replace several million pallets a year with a more sustainable alternative. In order to provide the whole world with sustainable pallets, we also need to look at other kinds of crops and maybe also at waste streams to make pallets out of.”
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