New Uses for Old Plastic

In the past 30 years, plastic has evolved from being perceived as a marvelous man-made material to being synonymous with everything fake and environmentally unfriendly. But now, thanks to a legion of environmental entrepreneurs, plastic has a renewed future, one that is both environmentally responsible and increasingly profitable.

While aluminum has been the recycling darling of those charged with the challenge of finding markets for the materials amassed at recycling centers and material recovery facilities (MRF), plastic, on the contrary, generally is viewed as a nuisance at best.

Let's face it, as far as recycling goes, plastic eats up a lot of space and doesn't fetch commanding market prices. But the first rule of the marketplace always has been supply and demand - and demand is increasing for a variety of products made from recycled plastic.

"The uses are as endless as your imagination," says Sue Beard, co-owner of The Plastic Trading Co., a national recycled plastic products distributor based in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"The awareness level is greater and is coming from a lot of different directions," she continues. "Municipalities are becoming environmentally conscientious. They're getting grants and putting [recycled plastic building materials] in the specs. A lot of contractors and architects who wouldn't even talk to us a few years ago now are contacting us because the building specs call for recycled plastic materials."

Many new home buyers are requesting recycled lumber, Beard adds. In addition to lumber, recycled plastic is being used in variety of ways - including lobster traps, sea walls and bridge fender systems. Hotels are using recycled plastic milled into tongue-and-groove ceiling panels, and restaurants have recycled plastic booths and tables.

Of all the innovative recycled plastic products currently on the market, plastic lumber reigns king. Primarily derived from recycled high- and low-density polyethylene and polypropylene, plastic lumber is carving out a share of the traditional wood building material market, although the former still is more expensive.

"It's very prevalent here in Florida," Beard says. "It's a no-brainer: [Plastic wood] doesn't rot. There's no splintering, and it doesn't accept graffiti."

"I installed a boat dock 22 years ago, and I haven't replaced one board," attests Ervin Vincent, president and founder of N.E.W. Plastics Corp., Luxenburg, Wis. "It's still blue. Plastic wood doesn't need painting. It's faded a little over the years, but that's all."

Indeed, the long-term cost-effectiveness of plastic wood has given rise to scores of recycled plastic lumber companies nationwide, the majority of which are producing dimensional lumber. However, several companies have capitalized on recycled plastic's versatility and are filling niche market demands.

"We create a number of plastic lumber products," Vincent says. "But we also make other plastic products such as railings for manure spreaders and fencing."

Established in 1973, N.E.W. started out recycling plastic bottles through pultrusion, a continuous pipe extrusion process. The majority of its raw material is milk jugs and water bottles, which are delivered pre-chopped and washed by vendors. N.E.W. does some sorting and washing in-house but does not have the sewer system to handle large quantities.

Other companies, such as Wonderwood Industries Inc., Leeds, Ala., do everything from receiving the raw, unsorted plastics to producing the final products. To curtail contamination, Wonderwood separates its raw plastic manually. According to Ray Donaldson, Wonderwood's president, once a load is chipped and mixed, it is virtually impossible to separate contaminated material from the rest of a load.

"Now that we get in the actual scraps, we don't have any problems," Donaldson says. "I've been in the business long enough to know what to look for."

To ensure quality, companies such as C.R.T. Laboratories Inc., Tustin, Calif., sample periodic loads using thermal and physical property tests to determine polymer percentages and detect contamination.

"We make sure the materials are what the sellers are representing them to be," explains Ken LeJeune, C.R.T.'s laboratory director. "Some manufacturers can use mixed loads. Others cannot have them at all."

While many recycling processes require pure loads, others are less particular and can accept mixed loads. Such is the case with U.S. Plastic Lumber, Boca Raton, Fla., maker of Earth Care recycled plastic products. While its wood lumber requires a purer polymer mix, the plastics used to manufacture its tractor trailer bed product doesn't need to be as clean, according to John Long, vice president of sales and marketing.

"The end-use applications are based on the raw content material," Long notes. "There are different uses for different plastics. It's just a case of matching up the appropriate material with the end-use application."

U.S. Plastic Lumber now has a patent for a fiberglass reinforced recycled plastic that is being used for railroad ties. The patented process was developed in conjunction with Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., and now the company is putting it to use in other applications such as pilings.

In addition, U.S. Plastic Lumber, one of the nation's largest recycled plastic manufacturers, offers a full line of fabricated decking lumber, institutional, residential and architectural product lines.

To further expand its market share, U.S. Plastic Lumber has acquired seven plastic recycling companies in the past year and a half. Many industry professionals see this as a market trend. "I'm seeing a lot of bigger companies buying out the smaller ones," Beard observes. "There's not any decline in the market. It's been a learning process. Those with the deepest pockets have survived."

"It's a tough market," adds Bob Hill, project manager of recycled plastic lumber for Bedford Industries Inc., Worthington, Minn. "There's some backyard companies that think they can get rich quick, and I'd tell them quickly you have to work hard at it."

While some companies are looking to expand, Bedford got into plastic recycling merely to close the production loop by converting residual materials from its manufacturing process into profitable products. The world's largest producer of twist ties, Bedford started mixing its plastic ribbon scraps with milk jugs to produce plastic lumber.

It now has an arrangement with Minnegasco, a Minneapolis-based public utility, to take excess plastic utility scraps and recycle them into utility post guards and other products for the utility company. "It's a neat closed-loop system," Hill says.

Bedford's recycling efforts have not gone unnoticed. Recently the company was honored with Minnesota's Waste Wise Award.

In addition to taking utility pipe scraps, Bedford also receives approximately 5,000 pounds of dairy jug seconds each month, along with industrial scraps from several industries.

"Every little bit helps," Hill says about this volatile market. "Last year, plastic was going for 36 cents a pound. Lately, it's been going for between 12 cents and 18 cents a pound. The recyclers have to make a buck too, or it just isn't worth it."

In spite of the added cost of trucking, Bedford receives recycled plastics from a number of recycling facilities throughout the tri-state region of Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa. For many, the distance between the raw material and the processing facility definitely is restrictive.

"We're fortunate to have an end-user nearby so we don't have to pay as much in transportation," says John Chamberlin, recycling coordinator for the Orange Grove Recycling Center, a regional MRF in Chattanooga, Tenn. "We sell to the highest bidder, but the majority of our plastic goes to Image Carpets [Summerville, Ala.]."

Orange Grove began as an educational facility for the disabled back in the 1950s. Initially, a local Budweiser distributor bought curbside aluminum collected by students as part of a vocational training program. Since then, the facility has become a full-grown MRF.

Orange Grove works with the city of Chattanooga to reduce waste volumes at the municipal landfill. "We don't get rich," Chamberlin says. "You have to keep in mind, we're still a training facility [in addition to] being a business. The plastic market fluctuates greatly.

"Some of the people I sell to are brokers who can afford to stockpile materials and wait for the market to go up," he continues. "But we're a private, non-profit organization, so when we get a load, we sell it. We can't afford to stockpile it."

Educating the public about recycling, and specifically about plastic recycling, is Chamberlin's greatest challenge because most people are not aware of the number codes at the bottom of plastic containers.

For example, syrup bottle plastic looks like soda bottle plastic, but the two are entirely different polymers. Oil and antifreeze containers have the potential to contaminate whole loads, he explains.

"A half cup [of contaminated plastic] in a 2,000-pound bail ruins the whole bail," he says.

While distribution and public awareness challenge the burgeoning plastic recycling industry, there is little doubt it is here to stay due to new applications that are being developed. However, as with other recycling efforts, it appears consumers are lagging behind the industry when it comes to closing the plastic loop.