Promising Wood – Plastic Industry Still Faces Challenges
Forget the economic data. Editors can tell a high-growth market by the amount of mail they get on it. In the case of wood- and natural-fibre plastic composites I have received enough material -- relea...
Forget the economic data. Editors can tell a high-growth market by the amount of mail they get on it. In the case of wood- and natural-fibre plastic composites I have received enough material — releases, market reports, surveys, technical papers, product brochures — to write four special reports. It seems everyone has something to say about the fastest growing (20% per year) segment of the plastics industry.
Not since perhaps the ’60s, when plastic knobs and moldings began finding their way into cars, has a single area of commercial development stirred an interest and a buzz like WPCs are doing today. This is astounding when you consider that there are only about 40 manufacturers of WPC products in North America (10 are in Canada). Moreover, about 70% of the production of those companies is going into one product — decking.
The analogy with the automotive market of the ’60s is compelling, because it is not current applications but potential applications that gets industry people cranked when discussion turns to WPCs. As with early plastic applications in automotive, there are technical questions about the ability of new materials to match the performance of traditional materials. There are questions about market and consumer acceptance of these new materials. Yet, much like in the early days of automotive plastic, if industry can successfully address these questions, the potential market for WPC applications seems nearly limitless, encompassing automotive, flooring, marina docks, furniture and much more.
Definitely not sexy, the creation of testing standards for WPC materials is nonetheless critically important. As one speaker at the recent International Conference on Wood-fibre Plastic Composites noted, a material like wood, for which multitudes of standards exist, has a distinct advantage over WPC which has few if any comparable standards. Manufacturers, retail chains and contractors naturally feel safer using materials that can be tested against certified standards. In effect, existing standards can be used to exclude new, competing materials from the market.
By and large, this hasn’t happened for WPC decking because these decking systems are able to meet commonly recognized non-structural building code requirements. For WPCs to be used in structural applications or in the manufacture of new products, standards will be essential. The ASTM is currently finalizing test standards for structural wood-plastic composites (see special report, p. 15). As the process is excruciatingly lengthy and complex, industry needs to anticipate the need for new standards well before WPC products hit the market.
Yet a bigger challenge to the early success of WPC materials may come from the market. Manufacturers of wood and, in some cases, all-plastic products are not likely to sit idle and watch their profits erode. A government official from California attending the International WPC conference said his state would question the “green-ness” of any WPC product not made entirely of recycled materials.
His statement was a reminder that not everyone is a fan of WPC materials. A group of home owners in the U.S. have filed a class-action law suit against Trex saying the company made false claims about the longevity of its WPC decking systems. Indeed, wood-fibre plastic will fade, but as one equipment supplier put it, “what would their 10-year-old wood decks look like?”
Technology for encapsulating wood fibre and processing is improving almost daily, but as several experts have noted, one of the most important aspects in growing consumer acceptance of WPC products is responsible product stewardship.
With so many new, high-quality WPC products coming out it would be a shame if one bad apple (or board) spoiled the bunch.
Michael LeGault, editor e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org