Recycled plastic lumber is growing in popularity as a green alternative to logged virgin wood, but is it really more sustainable? Made from post-consumer milk jugs and other plastics, this new material – used for things like picnic tables and decking – takes non-biodegradable materials out of the waste stream. It’s durable, sandable and can be re-melted to make new products. But it has its cons, too, and when all is said and done, wood grown in sustainably managed forests still comes out on top.
Post-consumer plastic lumber is impervious to pests, flame- and water-resistant, and doesn’t need to be painted or sealed. But it can also sag over time, and its discoloration after exposure to weather makes it look shabby, in contrast to the character taken on by aging wood. Though they may be recycled, the plastics used to make this lumber still contain harmful substances like PVC and dioxin.
Furthermore, it takes a lot more energy to manufacture plastic lumber than it does to log and mill real wood, and many plastic composites still require a certain percentage of virgin plastic. According to the EPA, a growing demand for plastic lumber could actually increase the production of virgin plastic and waste volume. And while wood can last centuries, the durability of plastic lumber is still unproven.
While a large percentage of the lumber industry is still composed of non-sustainably-managed forests or illegal logging, with trees being cut down without a real plan to replace them, there’s another option. The more demand increases for sustainably produced timber, the more forests will be maintained using ecologically sound practices. Purchasing truly ‘green’ wood like Eastern White Pine supports an industry that preserves ecosystems around the world.
Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service