Manufacturers of wood-plastic composites got some good news Feb. 12, when the Environmental Protection Agency decided to phase out a chemical used in pressure-treated wood.
Most plastic lumber makers took a genteel approach to the news. The market for composite products already is growing, they said, and EPA's ban of chromated copper arsenate (CCA) will just encourage the trend.
At the most basic level, officials expect the traditional price gap to narrow between pressure-treated lumber and plastic-based products. Alternatives to CCA, including ammonium copper quat (ACQ) and copper azol, are more expensive.
``The cost becomes more narrow and this industry should do very, very well,'' said Alan Robbins, president of the Plastic Lumber Trade Association.
EPA's announcement means wood treaters will no longer be able to use arsenic-laced CCA to treat wood intended for residential use after Dec. 31, 2003.
That includes decks, picnic tables, landscaping timbers, gazebos, fencing, patios, walkways, boardwalks and play structures. Marine and industrial applications will not be affected.
Shortly after EPA announced its decision, the three major chemical producers in the U.S. announced they were switching to alternative treatments, most notably, ACQ. According to Charlotte, N.C.-based Chemical Specialties Inc., ACQ can run 10 to 25 percent higher than CCA.
What will the changes mean to manufacturers of plastic-based lumber products? Opinions are as varied as the ingredients in different composite applications.
``I think the whole pressure-treated lumber deal is overblown,'' said Joe Brooks, president of Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc., based in Springdale, Ark. ``I think the forest product companies will rise to the call.''
He credited overall consumer awareness with growth in recycled plastic and wood composites. AERT is not basing growth plans on EPA's decision, but on market momentum. The firm recycles polyethylene and wood chips for use in deck and railing applications.
``[Lumber companies] will get rid of the arsenic,'' Brooks said in a Feb. 10 interview at the International Builders' Show in Atlanta. ``They'll have another treatment. It may be a little more expensive. You've already got a whole line of engineered lumbers. I think this is going to be more of media hype than reality. You've already got alternative chemicals. Let's face it, I don't think anybody's going to shut down all those treating mills and throw those people out of work. I think you're just going through another transition to the next level.''
Moreover, processors know that most decking applications made from composites or 100 percent plastics still gain their foundation from wood. Composites used in structural applications such as joists and posts are rare.
But officials certainly expect that to be a developing market.
``I just think it adds momentum to a market trend that was already moving along and it creates more public awareness to alternatives,'' said Al England, executive vice president of Madison, Wis.-based Strandex Corp., whose technology is licensed to wood-plastics processors. ``From a Strandex point of view, it's simply a matter of time before structural components can be made. It's the next development down the line. This phase-out only adds winds to the sails to continue these developments.''
EPA's decision has prompted York, Neb.-based Kroy Building Products Inc. to explore substructure applications with an unnamed company, said Greg Burkholder, product manager.
``Without a viable substructure, we don't have any deck sales,'' Burkholder said in a Feb. 9 interview at the Builders' Show. ``If they're not able to come to a reasonable solution within the industry, our deck sales are gone.'' Kroy primarily manufactures PVC decking.
Boca Raton, Fla.-based U.S. Plastic Lumber Corp. does currently offer posts and joists made from a combination of recycled PE and fiberglass. They have offered structural components for about two years, President Mark Alsentzer said in a Feb. 13 telephone interview.
``It's going to help everyone in the industry, not just us. It's going to be a big help,'' Alsentzer said.
In a news release issued Jan. 31, Alsentzer said the company believes this announcement will have a very meaningful effect on the company's sales growth over the next several years.