The market for plastic lumber or composite products is on the rise. According to statistics from international consulting firm, Principia Partners, demand for composite products will reach more than $1.4 billion worldwide by 2007 and is expected to continue to show strong growth through 2010. The types of end products being manufactured cover the gamut, ranging from roofing shingles to lobster traps to barn board — and that’s just here in Canada. The term “plastics lumber” or “composite lumber” has come to refer to many different products that use plastic material. It could mean that the product incorporates recycled plastics or virgin plastics, that the plastic is mixed with natural fibres (like wood), or that it contains more than one type of plastic. The actual recycled plastic material used can also vary and can be derived from the industrial, commercial or post-consumer sector.
Hay is for horses
One innovative company just getting off the ground with a recycled plastic product is a Waterloo-based firm called Think Plastics. The company principals — Lisa Lackenbauer and Chuck Sparks — also specialize in the sale of plastic extrusion equipment so they are well versed in the intricacies of plastic manufacturing.
“We’re looking to be up and running in early 2005,” explains Lackenbauer, who adds that when operational, the 15,000 square foot plant will employ 15 people.
Think Plastics will focus primarily on the recycling of agricultural plastic film, tapping into the used hay bale wrap from the farming communities and the used greenhouse plastic film from the nursery and landscape trades. A proprietary manufacturing process will convert the linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) product into a new plastic lumber product called “baleboard” which will be sold back to the agricultural community for use as barn boards, farm fencing and to the cottage industry as dock material. According to Lackenbauer, the end product will container about 70 per cent used plastic film, with the remainder composed of other post-industrial materials. (The posts will measure 4″ x 4″ x 10′ and the boards will measure 2″ x 6″ x 12′.)
“We’ve had a lot of help from our local Ontario Federation of Agriculture offices,” states Lackenbauer, who adds that the new facility will require a minimum of 726,000 kilograms (1.6 million pounds) of LLDPE per year or about 14,000 kilograms (31,000 pounds) per week.
“Right now, the material is being gathered on our behalf at about 16 local landfill sites. This is the time of year when most of the hay bale wrap is due to come in so we’re going to start stockpiling until we have the quantity we need to start up our operation.”
Think Plastics is also working with smaller nursery operators to organize drop-off sites for the used plastic greenhouse film and is working directly with the larger operators.
“It’s a slow process,” explains Lackenbauer. “It takes time.”
And at a projected capital investment of around $1 million, Think Plastics is focused on building slowly and carefully.
“We’re putting a lot of thought and planning into this,” concludes Lackenbauer. “We want to make sure that we have everything in place to ensure a smooth ramp up of our operations.”
EPIC’s work with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs has determined that it is important to maintain a high quality stream of hay bale plastics in order to find viable end markets. EPIC and the ministry have since co-developed a series of “best practices” for the collection of plastic hay bale film. The five steps contained in the series include: shake the plastic to remove any stones, wire, dirt or other contamination; hang plastic to dry for one or two days (use wagon racks, fence posts, etc.); shake the film again to remove any leftover dirt; store the plastic in a dry and clean location, away from sunlight; and get in touch with the organization running a collection program in your area.
Look up; way up!
From inside barn stalls to up on the rooftops, plastic composite products are finding their way into innovative applications. Chatham-based Wellington Polymer Technology Inc. (WPTI) has developed a look-alike cedar shingle made from a proprietary composition of recycled plastic, recycled rubber elastomers and agricultural fibre materials (like flax and hemp). The composite roofing material, called Enviroshake, comes with a 50-year warranty.
According to Jim Nash, Vice-President, Corporate Development of WPTI, the composite shingle offers many advantages over traditional cedar shakes. Enhanced physical properties provide increased durability, ultraviolet light protection, wind and hail resistance and mold, mildew and insect resistance. Plus, there’s the environmental benefit of diverting material from landfill. Nash also states that the product can be installed easily and with less waste than traditional cedar shakes.
So successful has WPTI been since it was founded in 1998 that the company was recently purchased by Toronto-based Unisphere Waste Conversion Ltd. According to John Wypich, president and CEO of Unisphere, plans are underway to add a second production line to the WPTI facility in Chatham to support the current demand for Enviroshake.
Say it with plastic
Increased manufacturing of composite plastic lumber has even led one Corner-Brook company into becoming a dedicated plastics fabricator of composite products. Enviroplastic Lumber Ltd. offers a broad range of pre-fabricated products all of which are made from 100 per cent recycled plastic. The list includes picnic and patio tables, floating wharfs, benches, playground constructions, fencing, lawn chairs, planters, garbage and recycling bins, sandboxes and even a lobster trap.
“Our initial focus is on Atlantic Canada,” explains Jeff Penney, president of Enviroplastic Lumber. “But we’re hoping to expand into the U.S. as well.”
According to Penney, pre-fabricated products represent about 90 per cent of the business, with the remainder being made up from the sale of finished recycled plastic lumber. The company currently employs eight people in the fabricating end of the business.
“It’s been a great success so far,” concludes Penney. “We’re seeing a lot of interest from the government at all levels, as well as towns and cities.”
Enviroplastic was awarded the contract to produce picnic tables for Gros Morne National Park, a United Nations recognized World Heritage site.
Building from the bottom up
With interest in composite lumber applications on the rise, more and more companies are making the leap from traditional materials to recycled plastic. And they’re developing some innovative products and opportunities in the process. The fact that composite lumber products offer added benefits in terms of weatherability and life span go a long way in helping to nurture their acceptance. Plus, these products have the added advantage of helping to divert material from landfill and to help close the loop on recycling.
Cathy Cirko is the director general of the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC), a council of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA). Email Cathy at firstname.lastname@example.org