Canadian Plastics

WPC Update: All Processors on Deck

We all know that the U.S. housing market -- the source of so much business for Canada's wood-plastic composites (WPC) manufacturers -- has seen better days.

July 1, 2009   By Mark Stephen, managing editor



We all know that the U.S. housing market — the source of so much business for Canada’s wood-plastic composites (WPC) manufacturers — has seen better days.

How bad is it? According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, housing starts in May 2009 were down a whopping 42 per cent from 12 months earlier.

And while this certainly doesn’t spell good news for WPC suppliers, there is a silver lining, according to the experts: new markets are being identified, and researchers are at work improving product quality to allow WPC suppliers to begin making inroads as soon as possible.

opportunities

With homeowners trying to spruce up the homes they can’t afford to sell, one of the biggest areas of WPC growth, everyone agrees, is in decking. According to Chicago-based market research firm The Freedonia Group, U.S. demand for WPC decking is forecast to rise 9.5 per cent per year through 2013, while demand for the smaller plastic decking segment is projected to advance 10.2 per cent annually.

No one familiar with the benefits of WPC materials will be surprised by the reasons given for this. “Consumers will be attracted to these decking materials due to their long life spans, minimal maintenance requirements, and imperviousness to degradation caused by general wear and tear, and long-term exposure to moisture,” the company said. “While decks made from these materials generally cost more initially, they require less annual maintenance than most wood decks, thus offering customers savings in the long term.”

Papers presented at the 10th International Conference on Wood & Biofibre Plastic Composites, held in May 2009, detail some of the challenges of delivering these characteristics. They also spotlight other new market opportunities, as well as technical developments needed to make WPCs more palatable to the decision makers.

According to Dr. Robert Tichy of Washington State University and Dr. Paul Smith of Penn State University, the fencing, door, and window parts segments are showing encouraging signs of growth, continent-wide. “The demand in North America for WPC fencing and siding is expected to expand, and so is the need for trim boards and molding, door and window components, and roofline products,” they said. “Building professionals want WPCs to show long term durability, which the industry is working to improve,” he said. “A second issue facing WPC molders in this market, however, is one that they can’t directly control: building codes and standards need to be developed to cover the use of WPCs.”

Drs. Doulgas Gardner and Yousoo Han, University of Maine, suggested other areas of growth in structural engineering markets, in particular construction (foundation elements), marine infrastructure (pilings, decking and beams), and transportation infrastructure (recreational bridges).

They also mapped out some of the technical challenges facing WPC processors looking to pursue these markets. “Current concerns about property and performance of structural WPCs are stiffness limitations, creep, brash failure, impact resistance at cold temperatures, and stiffness reductions due to moisture up to 50 per cent,” they explained. “What’s necessary to cross into these new markets are modification of the thermoplastic/wood fibre mix into stiffer, more resin-like materials; and also better bonding between matrix and fibre by advances in additive and cross-linking technologies.”

obstacles

In all of these markets, long term durability and cost remain the crucial hurdles for WPC products to clear. “Product issues continue to be mold and discoloration, weathering, decay, and high prices,” said Dr. Jeffrey Morrell, Oregon State University. The solutions, he continued, include adding fungicides, anti-oxidants, UV stabilizers, and pigments to prevent mold and discoloration; and adding water repellants, smaller wood particles, and preservatives to combat weathering and decay. “These are all useful measures, but cost becomes an issue the more we resort to them,” he said. “It’s a problem the WPC industry still has to solve.” CPL


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