Resistant To Time

As wooden benches and picnic tables age, their splinters and cracks are usually fixed with paint and waterproofing.

Picnic tables made from recycled plastic cut down on maintenance costs.

Also, most parks-and-recreation maintenance crews are familiar with the seasonal rotation of moving furniture to storage during the winter.

Looking for an alternative? High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is made from post-consumer recycled products, such as milk jugs or plastic containers.

Labeled with the number “2” recycling symbol, the post-consumer content HDPE is finely milled and melted; higher-quality HDPE lumber has no fillers, and is created from a single type of recycled plastic stream.

In fact, more than 1,600 milk jugs are diverted from the waste stream to manufacture just one 250-pound recycled-plastic picnic table.

Finishing Touches

Since HDPE from milk containers is colorless, pigments are added to achieve a desired color. These light-stabilized pigments are added before the plastic lumber is formed into standard lumber sizes to give the non-porous boards a uniform color.

Ultraviolet stabilizers also are added to help protect the finished product from chalking and the colors from fading.

It is recommended that earth tones, such as browns, tans and greens, be used for longevity, while bright colors–reds and oranges–are to be avoided. Blue end caps also can be added to tables to signify they are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Just like lumber, the edges of HDPE can be routed to form a smooth, curved edge, and burs can be removed with light sanding. To eliminate unsightly rust stains, stainless-steel fasteners are used; while these may cost more, they are worth it because of durability.

Although HDPE lumber is more flexible than wood, longer spans require support brackets, braces or aluminum angles to reduce the possibility of boards sagging over time.

A Weighted Issue

To reduce the weight by 25 percent, add surface texture and improve the structural performance of the boards, HDPE is injected with microscopic air bubbles before it is formed into lumber. Yet, even with the lighter-weight plastic lumber, the constructed tables still weigh enough to discourage theft.

“At best, our wood tables were getting moved to the middle of a playground or soccer field, and at worst–stolen–because the wood tables were light enough that thieves could just throw one in the back of a truck and be gone,” says Bill LaGrou, Superintendent of Ballville Township near Fremont, Ohio.

“The HDPE tables are much heavier. You would need four to five guys to pick up the recycled plastic tables and get them into a pickup truck.”

Less Maintenance

Over time, Ballville Township park officials have been changing from wood picnic tables and benches to HDPE. Although the recycled-content picnic tables and benches cost more than wood, they typically pay for themselves in two years due to reduced maintenance costs, LaGrou notes.

Park benches also can be made from recycled milk jugs and other "number 2" plastics.

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