Turning low-grade plastic waste into maintenance-free lumber

Written by: Paul Segal | Published:
RSPB Rainham Marshes

When Keith Browning, head of Braeside Education Centre in Devizes, an established learning and events venue run by Wiltshire Council, was looking to replace some of the timber-based infrastructure used in its outside activities, he was inspired to try a new approach.

Instead of costly natural wood timber, he chose Smartawood, a timber substitute made entirely of recycled waste plastic.

Smartawood’s appeal when compared with traditional natural timber is easy to understand – it doesn’t rot, requires no maintenance, no replacements, has no requirement for paint, coatings or preservatives, and carries a 10-year guarantee, although is expected to last indefinitely.

For Browning, these benefits were key: “We use the recycled lumber in several areas at the centre, all of which demand something that is going to be very tough. For example, in one activity area, we use it to surround a section of gravel.

“This means it is in constant contact with the ground and gets very wet. Natural wood rots very quickly in this environment. We’ve been lucky if we get five years’ wear out of it. But as Smartawood doesn’t rot, getting wet is just not an issue, so it’s going to last much longer.”

He has also put Smartawood to work along the centre’s off-road biking route and as vital support posts in a special area called The Minefield Activity. This is a problem-solving challenge where teams have to build a walkway with different lengths of planks, using posts in the ground as supports.

“The supports are buried into the ground and are consequently not easy to replace. Wooden ones are known to break quite quickly so using Smartawood here is absolutely ideal.”

Browning joins many of our customers who are discovering that waste plastic can be put to very good use. “Not only are we saving cutting down trees by choosing Smartawood, it also means less plastic waste going to landfill. It also doesn’t produce any splinters, which is an added benefit.”

How it’s made

Smartawood is created by a unique special process at our factory in North Wales. We take a wide range of recycled plastic, including plastic contaminated with paper and metal, from plastic waste that is sourced in the UK, mostly from local authorities. For every one tonne of recycled plastic we use, 700kg of carbon is diverted from landfill.

And it’s not just a win for the environment. Economically, Smartawood has been proven to beat traditional timber hands down, too. A study by waste charity WRAP compared recycled plastic lumber with timber used in the construction of a walkway over a 23-year period.

The study showed that the timber walkway, which while costing slightly less to install at around £6,000, had to be replaced four times over the 23-year period, with a final bill of £30,000. The plastic alternative cost approximately £10,000 to install but required no replacement during the same period.

Aside from durability and value for money, another key benefit of Smartawood is its low-slip properties, making it ideal for decking, walkways, jetties, external staging and platforms. Unlike wood, which is susceptible to the growth of moss, lichen and algae, rendering it highly dangerous to walk on, nothing much can grow on plastic, making Smartawood a health and safety officer’s dream.

The recycled lumber has been independently verified as having a low-slip potential by floor safety consultancy Safe Step (UK), which awarded the lumber a score of 59 when dry and 46 when wet (a score of 36 and above is classed as a low-slip risk surface).

Bird’s life

Clients who have benefited from this aspect of Smartawood include RSPB and nature reserves. The RSPB purchased sufficient Smartawood to replace 500 metres of rotted timber boardwalk at its Rainham Marshes flagship reserve.

The product’s use of recycled plastic was a key selling-point for the RSPB, as was its longevity and low-slip surface. Nicola Khan at the reserve says: “We were initially attracted to the product due to its green credentials, as it is made from sorted, but otherwise untreated, mixed plastic waste products.

“The installation was an excellent project for our volunteers to get stuck into and the completed boardwalk is great to walk on and has an impressive non-slip quality in wet conditions.”

Circular thinking

John Northcott, MD of Plastecowood, explains why transforming waste plastic into durable lumber has never been more necessary: “As the UK’s plastic consumption continues to be put under the spotlight, and with the new restrictions on sending plastic waste to China, it’s more important than ever that as a country we reinvent how we deal with end-of-life plastic.

“By using waste plastic in our products, we are ensuring that the very attributes that make it such a problem in the environment now become real positives for its second life as substitute lumber, where durability and long life are major benefits.”

As our raw stock is mostly sourced from the domestic waste plastic collected by local authorities, it’s fitting that local authorities and other organisations should benefit from the result.

We offer a ‘closed loop’ service to local authorities as well as waste authorities, producers, managers and other licensed waste carriers, whereby the raw waste plastic stock they supply can be purchased back as new lumber at competitive rates.The service is an example of the circular economy in action, with end-of-life waste being turned into something new and of real value.

While the problem of waste plastic seems set to dominate the headlines for the foreseeable future, at Plastecowood we are already proving that waste plastic has a future reimagined as something that is intensely practical, environmentally friendly and economically sound. Waste plastic transformed into a must-have product – who would have thought it?

Paul Segal is director at Plastecowood.

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