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Recycling Plastic Containers Into Sturdy Construction Materials : Already in use, or soon to be, are wood substitutes used for pier pilings in L.A. Harbor and school benches in Oxnard.

August 26, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ventura County may get some relief from the graffiti on local freeway walls, courtesy of an emerging environmentally friendly technology--plastics recycling.

Nothing can really keep taggers from practicing their annoying art in public places, but one peculiar property of walls made from recycled plastic is that you can wipe spray paint off with a paper towel.

That's why Caltrans is considering using building components made from recycled milk jugs and other plastic containers to build walls alongside county freeways. Not all walls, mind you, just those erected to protect homeowners from noise.

First, the materials will be tested in Los Angeles County near the Hollywood Freeway--at the Melrose exit--and in Orange County where the Santa Ana Freeway meets the Artesia Freeway, according to Conway Tillis of California Recycling, the suppliers of the materials involved.

Another interesting characteristic of building materials made from plastic--separated from the waste stream by such intrepid home recyclers as you and me--is its durability.

It's ironic the qualities that make it so annoying a problem for landfills--it never biodegrades or rusts--are a terrific advantage for building materials in places where there is prolonged exposure to the elements.

That's why the Port of Los Angeles is beginning the installation this week of recycled plastic in pilings on its Fire Department dock at L.A. Harbor.

Also, no mollusk wants to cozy up to a pier that used to be a juice jug. It's too hard and slippery to give marine life a fixed place of residence, thus preventing worms from boring within and clusters of barnacles from threatening the structural integrity of the pier. That's why Port of Hueneme officials are watching this new installation with interest, according to Bill Buenger, deputy executive director of the Oxnard Harbor District. Installations are also under way in Oakland, Washington state, Canada and Puerto Rico.

We already have some local examples of plastic lumber--in the form of benches installed by the Oxnard Elementary School District. "They don't splinter or need repainting," according to Roy Anderson of the district.

In Santa Barbara, benches along the jetties posed a peculiar problem. According to the city parks' spokesman, Bob Zimmer, the salty surf was wreaking havoc with the traditional wood and cement benches.

The usual materials cracked. Repainting was a problem because they had to wait for a low surf day, lest the salt spray in the air prevent the paint from drying properly.

I had an image in my mind of Zimmer and his crew hanging around until they hear the cry, "Surf's down!" and then rushing out on the jetties to apply a few licks of paint before the next gnarly wave rolled in.

"It's become a trend to use recycled plastic lumber," Zimmer said. He added that across the nation, especially on the Eastern seaboard, local governments have begun to specify the use of recycled products for such public facilities as boardwalks and picnic tables. Even Jungle Gyms, he said, are being erected with the so-called plastic lumber.

A whole industry has sprung up, according to Alan Robbins, an Ohio manufacturer who last month hosted the first meeting of a nationwide industry group devoted to promoting plastic lumber. "It's grown from zero to 40 million pounds of plastic lumber in four years," he said. (A pound is the equivalent of a piece of 2 inches by 4 inches, one foot in length.)

In Southern California, the product is appearing as benches at Del Taco restaurants and in such places as Palm Desert and Palmdale, where people are building white fencing for their horse-riding spreads. The product stands up well in heat or cold (it's being used to build ice-skating rinks in Alaska).

Use of the stuff in the desert makes me think that the ghost towns of the future might not look cracked, faded and ghostly enough--these plastic milk cartoons never seem to melt or fade.

But let's not mourn the passing of wood as a local building material. Although it's going to get more expensive now that Washington has put severe restrictions on timber cutting on public lands, there won't be a rush to build houses from plastic lumber.

The building codes of the nation have not yet been modified to allow for its use in residential construction. But that's under serious discussion, mind you.

The new industry, in the meantime, is counting on the appeal of its product as a low maintenance outdoor product. It's not just graffiti that can easily be banished when you build with this stuff.

As an advertising quote from a Victorville firm, which makes agricultural fencing and livestock pens, put it: "No more scraping of pen floors. This floor is virtually self cleaning. Nothing sticks to it."

* FYI

For information on building materials and other applications for recycled plastic, call Environmental Construction Outfitters (800) 238-5008 or Environmental Specialty Products, (800) 7-PLASTIC.

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