The History of Plastic Lumber

Re-posted from my linkedin profile blog

Since the 1980’s plastic lumber has found its way into many unique consumer applications.  Originally a waste product without a home, HDPE post-consumer scrap like bales of milk jugs and PE bottles began to catch the interest of enterprising businessmen.  Technology was born to separate, clean and turn the post-consumer materials into a usable feed stock for further processing through continuous extrusion and molding.  The term “Plastic Lumber” has been loosely used to refer to both fully synthetic HDPE profiles as well as composite materials such as produced by the large decking brands that are sold in national home chains.  Narrowly defined, plastic lumber is actually a fully synthetic product and adversely any product containing or blended with natural fibers takes on the name “Composite” by definition.

Many companies were launched post this technological discovery most of which were bought up by publicly traded USPL in the late 90’s.  New applications were developed every day and the niche plastic lumber industry expanded rapidly.  The flexible non-structural nature of the material drove it into segmented and niche market applications.  High grade finished lumber became popular among furniture builders due to its longevity and the ease of maintenance that it offered.   While low grade materials began to replace wood in many applications where rapid degradation of natural fibers forced replacement and drove costs too high.  Applications like rail ties, manure spreader floors, and parking stops just to name a few.  Bridges, pilings and other highly engineered products have also been developed utilizing some level of HDPE and other synthetics blended.

Originally the recycled, or “Green” nature of the post-consumer raw materials played a large marketing role.  Known as the material made from milk jugs plastic lumber gained fame as the products made from it continued to gain awareness.  The reality of these original green content claims has been called into question many times even by the FTC.  The fact remains that a large portion (in excess of 70%) of the plastic lumber market place does indeed come from post-consumer materials and the remaining portion is produced using postindustrial material.

Quick lived USPL closed its doors only a few short years after it completed its buying rampage in the 90’s.  Effectively once again fragmenting the American plastic lumber manufacturers and positioning them mainly throughout the upper mid-west.  Most of these enterprising plastic manufacturers each tailor their products to a specific niche within the general plastic lumber marketplace.  Some of the most prevalent applications for plastic lumber such as Adirondack outdoor furniture are widely recognized.  However, hidden inside this incredibly fragmented world of plastic lumber applications and ready to pounce on the over-served composite decking market is a hidden gem.  Synthetic plastic lumber decking has been developed and it offers incredible longevity and aesthetic beauty.

Closing the loop this decade by turning millions of tons of post-consumer scrap into usable and beautiful products, plastic lumber quietly celebrates its 30th anniversary.