We Weren't Always Perfect: Plastic Composite Building Materials

In simple terms, a composite is two (or more) different materials that combine together to create a better or higher performing product. The first use of composite building materials dates back to 1500 BC when Egyptians and Mesopotamians used mud and straw for building structures. Straw was later also combined with other materials and used for pottery and boats to provide added reinforcement.

The number of natural composites continued to grow over the years. As time passed, many new composites were created using natural materials like animal bones, plants and wood fiber for applications like tools, transportation and housing structures. Then, in the early 1900s, the first plastic composites were developed using common types of polymers like vinyl and polyester. But it wasn’t until the late 1900s that plastic composite building materials really made a name for itself, especially in the marine industry.

Plastic composites are much newer than traditional building materials like wood, and with any new product can come imperfections. Just like any building material, plastic lumber had its challenges in the beginning. Unfamiliarity and confusion around plastic lumber composites and how to use also contributed to the general public opinion about this material. However, as the plastic lumber industry continues to grow and evolve, manufacturers have made huge strides to improve this material.

Plastic Lumber Composite Challenges

Miseducation & Misunderstanding – Since this product is considered “new”, a lack of education has posed a challenge for the plastic lumber industry. There are common misconceptions about plastic composite building materials that have existed since plastic lumber was first used, and project decisions can be based on incorrect information. Some of the information isn’t entirely inaccurate, and it doesn’t apply to every plastic composite, so it’s important to understand the specific building material specifications and characteristics.

Strength & Compression Standards – When plastic composite building materials first hit the market, there weren’t any performance standards set in place. Common technical properties like compression strength and stiffness were important and common, but depending on the way the calculation was conducted, results varied greatly, and it was difficult to get accurate calculations.

Rigidity & Stiffness (compared to traditional wood) – Another challenge in the plastic lumber industry is the constant comparison to traditional wood. Plastic composite building materials (without organic fillers like wood) are a great alternative to traditional building materials because it doesn’t rot, mold or decay and holds up in all types of weather conditions.

Organic Fillers – To remain competitive in the building material market, plastic composites added organic fillers like wood fiber and sawdust to help reduce costs. However, not all plastic composites include organic fillers this is because in a lot of cases, it can lower the performance properties of the plastic. Plastic lumber with organic fillers can mold and break down over time, especially when exposed to outdoor weather conditions.

Inconsistency & Variation of Recycled Plastic – On the manufacturing side of the plastic lumber industry, the main sources of the material is post-consumer recyclables and post-industrial scrap material. Depending on the source, the recycled products contain a lot of variation, which originally posed a challenge for many manufacturers in trying to produce a consistent product over and over.

 

Innovative Improvements – Striving for Perfection

Education

From technical information to education articles, Bedford Technology has worked extremely hard to provide detailed information about all things plastic lumber. Bedford Technology is different than other plastic composite manufacturers because the product lines are engineered for outdoor commercial projects that require additional strength and durability. Providing information and real-world examples of structural recycled plastic lumber is important to overcome any misconceptions or misunderstandings that may exist.

Manufacturing Processes

Bedford Technology uses three manufacturing processes to create 7 product lines of structural recycled plastic lumber. Bedford Technology manufacturers our products with HDPE and adds only inorganic fillers, like fiberglass strand or rebar, that will only improve product performance characteristics. Each product yields unique performance characteristics and technical properties that can meet any project requirement.

Hard Tool – This process is similar to injection molding where recycled plastic, along with other materials, is forced through an extruder into a finite mold. It is then cooled until solid. This process generates unique shapes and profiles and is best-suited for projects that require additional strength like bridges, fencing systems and industrial applications like cribbing and equipment mats.

Continuous Extrusion – Single-stage extrusion melts the plastic material that is combined with additives like UV stabilizers and forces it through a “die”. The die forms the plastic into a set profile as it comes out of the extruder. This process yields premium-grade products and is ideal for projects that require a certain aesthetic flair like outdoor furniture, decking and playground equipment.

Multiple Stage Extrusion (Multi-X) – This is a three-stage manufacturing process that first creates a cold core or internal filler. A blend of HDPE, fiberglass strand and fiberglass polymer rebar is extruded on top of the cold core. The third stage creates a dense skin with a low-friction surface that is extruded over the cold core and rebar. Multi-X manufactured structural recycled plastic lumber can withstand heavy impacts and absorbs energy through recoverable deflection. It is ideal for marine industry applications like bridge protection systems, fendering, wales, dolphin clusters and more.

Product Testing & Quality Standards

Each Bedford Technology product goes through extensive testing to ensure that the product meets the high-quality standards of the company and the customer. ASTM International is one of the largest standards developing organizations and have over 12,000 ASTM standards, over half have been globally accepted as the basis of national standards.

When plastic lumber composites first entered the construction market, Bedford Technology teamed up with ASTM International and the Plastic Lumber Trade Association to help develop quality standards to help unify the industry. Some of these standards include Standard Test Method for Compressive Properties of Plastic Lumber and Shapes, Standard Test Methods for Flexural Properties of Unreinforced and Reinforced Plastic Lumber and Related Products, Standard Test Methods for Compressive and Flexural Creep and Creep-Rupture of Plastic Lumber and Shapes, and Standard Test Methods for Mechanical Fasteners in Plastic Lumber and Shapes.

Bedford Technology uses ASTM standards, and tests each product against over 15 of these standards including Characteristics of Building Materials, Compressive Properties of Plastic Lumber, Flexural Properties of Unreinforced & Reinforced Plastic Lumber & Related Products, just to name a few. Implementing these product tests and quality standards allows us to understand how the products function in the real world so we can provide educated recommendations to our customers based on the highest quality.

Innovation & Value Engineering

From process to product, innovation is a core value that is instilled throughout Bedford Technology. With an in-house engineering team, the innovation is also backed by data and analysis to ensure that all project requirements are met. Think of us as your second line of defense. Our engineering experts will double and triple check your designs to ensure that our plastic composite products meet all project requirements and specifications. Our customers are the driving voice in what adjustments are needed to increase the performance and technical properties of our products.

Goals & Future Planning

Plastic composites weren’t always perfect and as the plastic composites industry continues to evolve and grow, so do the products. As the leading manufacturer of recycled plastic lumber, Bedford Technology has been on the industry’s cutting edge of performance, standards and technology. Striving for perfection through innovation, enhanced product performance and new products continue to be top-of-mind. Our goal is to broaden our product offerings to include more outdoor applications where traditional wood may break down over time. The performance and technical properties that we focus on improving come directly from the voice of our customers, including higher strength, increased toughness and lower cost.

Jeff Breitzman, CEO & President of Bedford Technology says, “there is a tremendous amount of growth opportunity in the use of structural plastic lumber. Quality traditional timber availability is declining, which is an increase in the potential for plastic composite building materials. At Bedford Technology, we continue to strive for perfection, push the boundaries and use innovation and engineering to create better, more durable and higher-performing products.”

 

Perfection Takes Practice & Years of Proven Success

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