There's new wood in old bottles. Plastic milk jugs are recycled into rot-resistant boards that are ideal for waterfront decks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S a startling thought, to say the least - luxury yachts, with names like Siesta Time, Sweet Sue, and Flying Saucer, moored alongside 64,000 plastic milk jugs, pulled from nearby Naperville's waste stream a few months back. Not that the garbage is recognizable as such. It has been changed into lumber: tongue-and-groove-style boards that form the impressive new deck on the Southern Shore Yacht Club's reconditioned dock here.

Jeff Chaney makes the milk-jug connection when showing off the dock to visitors to dramatize what can happen to the nation's garbage when it gets into the right hands.

In this instance the ``right hands'' are the Eaglebrook Profiles company, which turns plastic waste, milk bottles for the most part, into lumber that will not rot, warp, shrink, splinter, pollute ground water, or appeal to termites. Nor will it catch fire easily.

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When workmen on a passing harbor-repair vessel expressed interest in the new dock, they asked for a piece of the plastic lumber and promptly applied an oxyacetylene torch to it. As long as the flame was applied to the board, it burned; when the torch was removed, the flames flickered out.

Another plus for the plastic lumber: It frustrates the would-be graffiti artist by providing a poor surface for paint. When spray paint dries, it rubs off readily, a fact that appeals to parks and playgrounds maintenance personnel.

Perhaps its best selling point, for docks or decks, is its nonslip surface when wet. Mr. Chaney pours water onto the dock to prove the point. He says it always comes as a surprise to people who are convinced that it will become slippery. I find I can push my leather-soled shoes more readily across the dry boards than the wet ones.

The new lumber currently comes in 1-by-6-inch planks, 1-by-2 and 1-by-1-inch slats for park benches, etc., and rods or dowels of varying diameters in brown, beige, opaque white, ``or whatever color the customer wants,'' says Chaney, who is director of sales for the company. Several red boards were extruded to highlight the gasoline pumps at the Southern Yacht Club dock. The color is solid throughout, not merely a surface application, so it will never wear off.

There is a drawback to plastic lumber, however: It costs twice as much as the conventional pressure-treated variety. So current sales are only for those purposes where the plastic's special qualities are needed, as in docks for rot resistance or parks and playgrounds where splinters can be a public liability. Some backyard decks in the Chicago area have been made with the product, not least because spilled barbecue sauce can be wiped up without leaving a stain.

Prices are expected to come down eventually. That will happen when much more of the raw material (high-density polyethylene) is reclaimed from the waste stream. Such plastic, known as post-consumer HDPE, is found in milk jugs for the most part, but also in detergent and shampoo bottles, antifreeze containers, and motor oil ``cans.''

More than 2.2 billion pounds of HDPE household bottles were sold in 1987 - almost 10 pounds for every person in the United States. Only a tiny fraction of it (less than 2 percent) was salvaged.

Paradoxically, while plastics recycling legislation is aimed at recovering polyethylene terephthalate (PET) soda bottle, four times as many HDPE bottles are destined for landfills. In addition, the market for salvaged PET is much smaller than for HDPE, because far fewer products can be made from it.

Post-consumer HDPE is used to make a wide range of products, including toys, flowerpots, drainage pipe, draining boards, mud flaps, pallets, and garbage bins, as well as lumber. According to a report in the August issue of Modern Plastics, ``a trio of emerging end-uses - pipe, nursery supplies, and plastic lumber - could develop into a combined billion-pound market for reclaimed HDPE.''

This potential demand for salvaged HDPE could spark a more concerted effort by communities to reclaim the plastic from the waste stream, according to Gretchen Brewer, recycling coordinator for the state of Massachusetts. HDPE bottles are ``easy for citizens to recognize and for communities to collect,'' she points out.

The city of Naperville, near Chicago, is a case in point. When the town added HDPE milk bottles to its curbside pickup of recyclable materials in 1987, residents responded ``very favorably,'' says Anne Aitchison of the Naperville Area Recycling Center. ``They need plastic, but they recognize that it doesn't biodegrade, so they feel a little guilty about it,'' she explains. When the opportunity to recycle comes along, ``They grab it.''

Many people who entered the voluntary program simply to recycle the milk bottles began sorting other recyclables (newspaper, glass, aluminum) as well. ``They [the milk bottles] drew a lot more people into recycling,'' Ms. Aitchison says.

Currently Naperville is salvaging a ton of plastic milk bottles a week, which earns the city $360 as well as saving it $27.30 in tipping fees at the landfill.

How do Naperville's recyclers react to the fact that some of the town's garbage now graces the dock of a prestigious yacht club?

``We're tickled,'' Aitchison says. ``It delights us!''

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