Plastic Lumber Companies Build Decks From Recycled Plastic

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ILLUSTRATION: LYNN FELLMAN
Intended mainly for outdoor use, plastic lumber is waterproof and inert and will never need replacing.

Recycled plastic finds new life as lumber. Learn about how companies build decks from recycled plastic bags used at grocery stores.

Dear Mother,
The redwood timbers I used for my raised beds need to
be replaced, and someone suggested that I use recycled
plastic wood. But I’ve also heard that the plastic
leaches chemicals into the ground, and since this is a
vegetable garden, I want to be as safe as possible. Any
advice?

–Barbara W.

A handful of manufacturers nationwide are busy turning
heaps of our plastic waste into durable “lumber.” Know
those bins in supermarket entries where you stuff used
plastic grocery sacks? More and more, the contents are
being sold to plastic lumber companies for recycling,
instead of going to a landfill to resist decomposition
forever.

Some companies, like the Colorado-based Ecodeck and Phoenix
Recycled Plastics of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, use 100%
recycled plastics; others, including the Trex Company of
Winchester, Virginia, build decks from recycled plastic by mixing reclaimed plastics with
industrial waste hardwood fibers to produce artificial wood
planking.

Intended mainly for outdoor use, plastic lumber is
waterproof and inert and will never need replacing, unlike
even the most thoroughly poison-impregnated (with copper
and arsenic) conventional pressure-treated (PT) lumber.
Termites can’t eat it and molds won’t infiltrate it.
Nothing can soak in or leach out so it’s ideal for raised
beds.

We have used Trex lumber for planking outside decks and for
building indoor-outdoor furniture. It is denser and heavier
than softwood dimension lumber and lacks wood’s natural
scents and textures. (and its knots, splits, warps and
splinters). But it saws, planes, nails and accepts paint as
well or better than wood. Left unfinished, Trex weathers
to a light silvery gray, similar to cypress or cedar.

The only comparative disadvantage we can see with Trex is
that it lacks the long fibers of wood and so is unsuitable
for load-carrying structural use, and must be
well-supported using 16″-on-center or closer floor joists.
This is irrelevant if using it in the garden, but a caveat
that its maker always includes in case someone wants to
purchase it for non-recommended use.

While plastic lumbers are not biodegradable, they are
completely recyclable. And they need none of the
air-polluting evaporative stains, wood preservatives, mold-
and mildew-killers and insect-deterrents needed to maintain
a wood deck. Of course, you can’t burn the short scraps in
the fireplace–but you shouldn’t burn pressure-treated
lumber either, lest you, your kids, pets and wildlife
breathe in heavy metal-poisoned smoke.

We found plastic lumber kind of clunky to work with . . . carries like deadweight, lacking the live springiness of
wood. But so what? It will last forever and won’t poison
your earthworms, lettuce and tomato plants or you.

For information about Trex, dial 1-800-BUY-TREX or visit
www.trex.com. Phoenix Recycled Plastics can be
reached on the Web at www.plasticlumberyard.com. Ecodeck is available through Environmental Building Products, Inc.

Dear Mother,
We are considering a pellet stove as a primary source of heat. However, a colleague told me that
the pellet dust is a significant problem for people with asthma and other sensitive upper
respiratory conditions, Is this true?

–Donna R.

Wood pellets are made largely from clean, white-wood
sawdust that is a byproduct of furniture or lumber
production (on the West Coast from fir and cedar, on the
East from mixed hardwoods). Manufacture is a two-part
process: First, the raw material is dried. Then it is
ground and forced through an extruder under pressure and
sufficient heat to melt resins so they solidify on cooling
into solid pellets.

Many people sneeze on breathing raw, resinous sawdust. But
dust is not produced in the pelletizing process, and the
final product is firmly compacted enough so that it does
not produce dust on being poured. Indeed, pellets are being
poured today from the bag into stove hoppers located in a
half-million living rooms worldwide. If dust were a
problem, we’d have heard about it in many languages by now.

To perform properly in the auger- or gravity-feed system of
a pellet stove, the fuel must be of a consistent dryness,
size and pourability, and it must lack dust or fines (which
can be a problem when using low-quality dry field corn, a
popular pellet fuel substitute in many corn-growing areas).
If you find any dust in your 40-pound bags of pellet fuel,
demand your money back and get another brand.

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