Gardening Articles: Landscaping :: Yard & Garden Planning

Would-Be Wood

by Alex Wilson

Gardeners are usually the first to praise the natural and authentic, and the first to avoid anything "plastic." But when it comes to using wood in the garden, they face a conflict: whether to use rare or exotic trees that are naturally rot-resistant, or turn to less-resistant wood treated with potentially toxic chemicals to prolong its useful life. There is a third way: substitute woodlike plastic materials for the real thing. These "woods" score points environmentally because they resist decay and rot, and are made entirely of recycled matter. They've come a long way in both looks and performance, and now that structural load-bearing components are also available, low-maintenance and long-lasting decks, walkways, boardwalks, arbors, raised beds, and other outdoor structures can now be built entirely from these materials.

Compared to wood, lumbers of recycled plastic will never need staining or sealing, and they never produce splinters. Long plank lengths that allow seamless decks are often available. Plastic decks typically cost slightly more than wood ones, but if you consider the lower cost of maintenance (periodic staining and sealing), the lifetime costs of plastic lumber will be a lot lower than for wood.

Recycled-plastic lumber first became available in the 1980s. Unlike most new products, its development was driven not so much by end-use needs, but rather by the need to deal with the growing mountains of plastic in landfills: 19 million tons a year, more than 120 pounds per person! Throughout the 1970s and '80s, solid-waste officials came to recognize that for recycling efforts to succeed, a market for recycled products would have to be created.

Government agencies and the plastics industry have invested millions of dollars researching how to utilize discarded plastic. Producing "lumber" from recycled plastic seemed like a great option: it used a lot of waste plastic, and created a weather-resistant product with many applications around our homes, parks, and businesses. By 1995, about 1 million tons of plastic were recycled in the United States, according to EPA figures.

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