Eco-friendly art

Beauty and utility lurk in discarded wood pallets.

Natanya Gidoomal (photo credit: NATANYA GIDOOMAL)
Natanya Gidoomal
(photo credit: NATANYA GIDOOMAL)
A stroll around the neighborhood on Lag Ba’omer night reveals plenty of wooden pallets stacked up for fiery sacrifice. It’s one way of using up the wood, although not the healthiest for the children inhaling the smoke. The kids, often with the help of their parents, drag the pallets out of building sites. The pallets look like old junk, and unless someone retrieves them and puts them to use again, that’s what they are.
Pallets come in many sizes and are made of many kinds of wood, because new pallets are made from leftover lumber; trees aren’t usually cut down to make them. Billions of pallets circulate around the world daily, with close to two billion in use in the US alone. We hardly notice them in daily life, but they are an indispensable tool for moving goods.
“Pallets move the world,” according to emeritus Prof. Mark White, director of the William H. Sardo Jr. Pallet and Container Research Laboratory and the Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design.
A conversation with Nissim Rosen, CEO of R.P. Mishtachim – a large Israeli company dealing with new and used pallets – reveals that today good-quality pallets are recycled as many times as they will bear the process. They’re repaired for further use, or taken apart so their usable parts can be recycled. Pallets’ construction, size and wood vary according to the demands of the particular industry for which they’re destined. However, builders use the cheapest, weakest sorts of pallets, so those used in construction, at least in Israel, usually wind up in landfills.
It takes an artist to start imagining how this old wood can be upcycled into useful, attractive objects. And sometimes, necessity sparks creativity. Natanya Gidoomal, a resident of Zichron Ya’acov, says that pallets came to her rescue when she was in a fix.
“When we first made aliya, my husband and I slept on a mattress just placed on the floor,” she recounts. “Then we had a house flood.”
Clearly a bed frame was long overdue in their home. “I’d been showing my husband all the Pinterest posts showing interesting things people make out of pallets,” she continues.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you make the bed frame out of pallets?’ So I did.”
Gidoomal, 33, has a postgraduate degree in performing arts from England’s Oxford University and taught dance before she made aliya – an unlikely background for a woman who takes a sander in hand several times a week and applies it to old wood.
“It’s another creative outlet for me,” she says. “I love to find the beauty in the junk, in the waste, in the rubbish heap. When I see a building site, yes, I see dirt, rusty nails and emergency tetanus boosters – all the dangers of building equipment. But I also see hundreds of ideas: art, and furniture, in that wood.”
Most of the pallets she uses come from local building sites.
“I make friends with the builders, and they sell me their used pallets,” she says. “They just dump them in front of my house.”
The wood may be dirty, stained, or blotched with cement or tar. But a thorough scrubbing and sanding-down reveal the individual colors and textures of the wood.
“I love the excitement of uncovering the wood’s hidden beauty,” she declares. “Each piece of wood has a fingerprint.”
Once the wood is clean and smooth, she fashions wall art, shelves, and even furniture like beds and tables out of it. Pallets must be treated against insect infestations.
This became evident in 1996, after pallets from China bearing the Asian long-horned beetle and the emerald ash borer crossed over to elm, ash and maple trees in the US, destroying entire tracts of forest. The International Plant Protection Convention passed a regulation by which all pallets crossing national borders must undergo treatment either by kiln heating or fumigation with the powerful methyl bromide pesticide. However, the EU member states banned methyl bromide in 2010 under the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement regarding substances that deplete the ozone layer. The pesticide was phased out in Israel in 2012.
Gidoomal chooses pallets that carry specific stamps on the wood. These stamps, which are burnt on, indicate country of origin, compliance with IPPC treatment standards, and the code of the company that carried out the treatment. Older pallets sometimes bear a mark indicating that they were treated with methyl bromide; these, Gidoomal rejects.
“I use pallets with the brand indicating that they were heat-treated, or ones with the EuroPal logo, which are safe,” she says. “I want wood that hasn’t been treated with chemicals.”
For this reason, she also uses only acrylic paints, and no lacquer, on her projects. “Wood paints are toxic,” she says. “Exposure to them makes my breathing hard.”
And as she gives her children freedom to paint and stain the wood, she definitely wants all her materials to be safe. Her studio is a corner of her home’s yard, “a little piece of ground we couldn’t do anything with,” she says. There’s where she creates projects ranging in size from candle holders to beds with headboards, as well as tables, all kinds of shelves, and wall art with gentle inspirational mottoes.
She opened for business only two months ago, but already demand for her upcycled artwork is growing. Smaller objects may be mailed around the country, but commissions for large objects must be picked up at her studio, with the customer arranging for transportation.
The sustainability debate about pallets is ongoing and unresolved: Wood, after all, does come from trees. While the US claims that enough trees grow to replace those cut down, it’s not known if suppliers in the Far East or IndoChina are ensuring new growth as they harvest woods and forests.
Eventually wood pallets may be entirely replaced by pallets of durable plastic, steel, or even paper. What’s better for the environment? Hard to know. Those alternatives don’t become infested with noxious insects, so they bypass fumigation or heat treatment. Materials spilled in transport are easy to clean up on plastic and metal pallets. They are generally lighter, which – because it saves space – saves transportation and thereby reduces greenhouse gases. And they are sometimes composed of recycled materials themselves (the basic material for some kinds of plastic pallets is recycled beverage bottles).
In the US and Europe, people create an astonishing variety of useful objects from pallets, including upright gardens, in which the empty spaces between the planks are filled with soil and sown with vegetables or flowers. In the meantime, our building sites are littered with wood pallets. Mostly they’re viewed as fodder for bonfires. Crafting new objects of beauty and utility from this cheap and accessible raw material hasn’t caught on much in Israel, but it seems to be an idea that artists and other people of imagination are exploring.
You can find Natanya Gidoomal’s pallet art and furniture on, or on the Simchat HaBayit Facebook page.