Some manufacturers of plastic lumber market it as an earth-friendly alternative to wood in products like decks and boardwalks. But a new report from environmental group Healthy Building Network suggests that not all plastic lumber is created equal.
In what is apparently the first attempt to rate plastic lumber's environmental performance, HBN argues that some of the most widely sold brands, including Trex, Home Depot's Veranda and the ChoiceDek line at Lowe's, are less environmentally friendly because they mix plastics with wood, hurting end-of-life recyclability.
Some lesser-known firms, however, like Bedford Technology LLC, earned strong marks for using very high levels of post-consumer recycled plastic and for avoiding PVC and polystyrene.
The June 29 report is an attempt to steer the rapidly growing market toward greener products, said Bill Walsh, national coordinator for Washington-based HBN and an author of the report. The group based its conclusions on company-provided data.
Walsh said HBN eventually plans to pressure government agencies, retailers and green-friendly companies to purchase or sell only the higher-rated products. First, he said, HBN anticipates updating the data based on additional information companies could provide. Those that did not respond were given negative recommendations.
The report grew out of government efforts to ban arsenic from treated lumber, an effort that HBN lobbied for heavily and that boosted the market share of plastic lumber.
HBN favors polyethylene-based products, because it said they have a less-harmful environmental footprint compared with other plastics. HBN also favors products with at least 50 percent post-consumer recycled plastic content.
The report examined 38 products and gave 14 the highest rating: ``most environmentally preferable.'' Thirteen products, including Trex and those sold at Loew's and Home Depot, were rated ``less environmentally preferable.''
Trex Co. Inc. and the companies making the Home Depot and Lowe's lines - Universal Forest Products and Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc. - did not comment. But other plastic lumber firms took issue with some of the contentions, arguing that plastic lumber is typically more environmentally favorable than wood.
The group said applications sometimes had to be taken case by case. Plastic lumber that uses fiberglass generally should be avoided, HBN said, but actually may be preferred in structurally demanding applications, if the alternative is treated wood.
HBN was very critical of brands that use virgin PVC or virgin PS, like CertainTeed Corp.'s Boardwalk line and CPI Plastic Group Ltd.'s Eon brand. It called them ``textbook examples of greenwash marketing for completely unsustainable products.''
CertainTeed spokesman John Pruett called that statement ``hogwash'' because his company does not focus its marketing on environmental claims. Instead, it sells the PVC/wood product with claims that it is stronger than PE products and will perform better over time.
The company uses mainly virgin PVC, mixed with recycled wood, and adds in smaller amounts of scrap PVC, he said, adding that it's hard to find enough recycled PVC.
``PVC is not recycled in the consumer waste stream like polyethylene is,'' he said. A plastic/wood deck is still environmentally preferable to an all-wood deck, because the plastic will last much longer, he said.
Like CertainTeed, CPI said it does not market its product to consumers as environmentally beneficial, but rather focuses on performance claims that it won't warp, chip or fade.
CPI President Ron Mitchell said his firm brought its Eon lumber to Home Depot's attention when he saw that the retailer was demanding that its suppliers use only wood certified from sustainable sources: ``We have a product that is not endangering any forests.''
Like CertainTeed and its PVC, CPI cannot find post-consumer PS it is able to use, he said.
``There's not a lot of infrastructure for post-consumer recycling of polystyrene,'' he said. ``We just can't buy any because the biggest single use is food packaging, and therefore it's not clean material.''
Walsh said the group was pleasantly surprised that so many products use 100 percent recycled PE, and it hopes to push those in the marketplace.
``We thought we were able to come out with a positive message, that the most environmentally preferable products are in a position to become the standard,'' he said.