The Time Is Now To Mold A Sustainable Plastic Lumber Industry

Bill Walsh | June 29, 2005 | Materials

The Healthy Building Network released today the first study to rate plastic lumber strictly on environmental and public health priorities.[1] We found huge disparities in environmental quality, including recycled content that ranges from 0 to 100%. The good news is that the most environmentally preferable products are poised to become the industry standard, with our support.

In response to an HBN survey, over 30 companies provided us with information about their plastic lumber products. We compared the products based upon the materials used, the post-consumer recycled content, and the potential for recycling the product after its service life.

Of the 38 products reviewed, more than a third earned our "Most Environmentally Preferable" rating. These products are manufactured from up to 100% post-consumer recycled polyethylene. Virgin polyethylene has fewer toxic inputs and associated environmental impacts than the PVC and polystyrene used in competing plastic lumber products. Since polyethylene is already one of the most recycled plastics, the prospects of actually recycling polyethylene lumber after its service life are realistic.

The most recognized national brands such as Weyerhauser's Choicedeck (sold at Lowe's), Veranda (sold at Home Depot) and Trex (sold nationally through lumber yards) earned a "Less Environmentally Preferable" rating for two reasons. As a general principle we believe that the mixing of synthetic and biodegradable materials should be avoided. The plastic/wood mixture appears to be a cost-cutting measure that offers no environmental or performance advantages over all-plastic lumber products. From a practical standpoint, this mixture renders the product far less likely to be recycled after its service life absent the creation of a dedicated infrastructure to return the product to the manufacturer. None exists. Products that combined various synthetic materials, such as using fiberglass or polystyrene for added strength, earned a lower rating for the same reason.

The one exception to our general preference for polyethylene-only products are those developed for demanding, heavy load-bearing applications. At this time, there are no polyethylene-only products suitable for such uses. Since these uses often involve chemically-treated wood in direct contact with the ground, the mixed plastics may well be a preferable alternative.

And then there are the environmental nightmares — Certainteed's virgin PVC Boardwalk line and the virgin polystyrene Eon brand — textbook examples of greenwash marketing for completely unsustainable products that have no place in a green building, or in the green building movement.

Materials matter. Imagine what a different world it would be if McDonalds had never replaced paper wrappers with the Styrofoam "clamshell" package for Big Macs; or if Henry Ford had had his way, manufacturing cars made from soy derived plastics running on what he called "farm fuel," plant-based ethanol.[2] The plastic lumber industry is at a pivotal point. It is experiencing dramatic net growth as it consolidates from numerous regional operations into national brands. Green building leaders are in a position to steer this industry away from environmental nightmares and toward the many brands that feature up to 100% post consumer recycled plastic content. This is a test for our generation. Have we learned? Are we different? Can we get it right?


New Report on BFRs from Health Care Without Harm

On June 23, Health Care Without Harm released a new report summarizing the science about the health threats and ubiquity of a class of chemicals widely used in health care settings to make products flame resistant.

Brominated flame retardants, or BFRs, have come under increasing scrutiny as evidence mounts that the chemicals are rapidly increasing in breast milk and the environment. BFRs are pervasive in health care products found in patient and waiting room furniture such as mattresses and foam pads, in textiles such as cubicle or privacy curtains, and in electronic equipment such as IV pumps, monitors and computers.

"The evidence shows that BFRs persist in our environment, bioaccumulate in the food chain and in our bodies, and are likely to cause adverse effects in our children," said report author Sarah Janssen, MD, PhD, MPH, Occupational and Environmental Medicine Fellow at the University of California at San Francisco.

For more information visit

Parent's Magazine Features "The Hidden Toxins in Your Home"

The feature story in the July issue of Parent's Magazine addresses "a growing concern to environmental-health experts: the fact that many common chemicals found in and around the average American home can be harmful to humans — especially to babies and young children." The article focuses on six pollutants, including PVC vinyl and pressure treated wood, with tips on how to reduce children's exposure to them. Parent's Magazine writes that vinyl "can put children at increased risk of asthma, cancer, and organ damage." HBN, cited as an authority on PVC, informs readers to avoid vinyl products whenever possible.


[1] See HBN's website at

[2] For a discussion of Henry Ford's foiled attempt to make ethanol the dominant fuel for his automobiles see The Secret History of Lead, The Nation, March 20, 2000. For a picture of Henry Ford with a soy based plastic Ford automobile, see