At Polywood Inc. in Edison, lumber is made from 100 percent plastics via immiscible polymer processing. The partnership between the extruder and Rutgers University resulted in the world's first all-plastic bridge, installed last fall over the Mullica River in Atsion, N.J.
It was a milestone for plastic lumber, officials said, because it was the first bridge effectively constructed with interlocking I-beams processed from recycled polystyrene and polyethylene. The bridge used 30,000 pounds of plastic: 10,000 pounds of PS and 20,000 pounds of PE. That plastic will support 36 tons and will handle fully loaded trucks.
Despite the accomplishment, President Jim Kerstein will admit that 2002 wasn't his firm's best.
``Honestly, with Sept. 11, we went about six months where we couldn't get certain rail lines to even return phone calls,'' Kerstein said in a Jan. 10 interview at Polywood headquarters. It was the first year in Polywood's six-year history that it didn't grow. The firm previously had experienced 50-60 percent growth each year.
``We've already seen enough this year that we're going to reverse that trend,'' he said. ``We're actively negotiating on more bridge projects.''
In Edison, Polywood occupies a 40,000-square foot building on 31/2 acres. In the past few months, officials have upgraded machinery to handle business from Chicago Transit and other railroads, plus new business from other areas. About 80 percent of Polywood's sales come from railroad ties.
``Right now, we're not looking to move, but again, that's more of an opportunity cost,'' Kerstein said. ``If we saw that there was new business in Texas, we might open a facility in Texas. We've set up our process equipment so that it's easily replicable and can be moved or set up elsewhere pretty easily here or abroad.''
In the facility, Kerstein operates six extrusion lines, making items like park benches and picnic tables in addition to bridge components and railroad ties. He won't discuss the output rate of his lines, but the firm has installed the two biggest lines during the past year, more than tripling capacity. Officials said they have the capacity to do nearly $12 million in railroad tie sales.
Kerstein and his 25-employee staff have worked with Rutgers, based in Piscataway, N.J., just a few miles from Kerstein's property. There, at the Center for Advanced Materials Via Immiscible Polymer Processing, researchers work with businesses on projects like Polywood's bridge components and railroad ties.
Tom Nosker, principal investigator with the center, and his staff talk fluently about creep factors of composites and plastic scrap generated within the Garden State, the nation's most densely populated state. New Jersey's collection rate is 65 percent.
The bridge is owned by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. For Nosker, the numbers speak volumes: There are 543,000 wood bridges across the United States and 40 percent of those are in need of repair at any given time. With the newly installed bridge, Nosker and staff also will conduct educational seminars.
``It really is very efficient in terms of how much material we used,'' Nosker said in a Jan. 9 interview at Rutgers.
The center had focused on railroad ties as a research topic, but now it's on to other things. ``We'd like to do that same thing with bridges,'' he said.