All Decked Out

As the thermometer begins to creep upward, there is a mass unfurling of deck umbrellas across the country. If the time has come to build a new deck or replace your worn one, you’ll be happy to know there are many ecologically sound materials with which to work.

Back to Basics

Homeowners can not only save trees but remove plastic from the waste stream by choosing from among a variety of plastic lumbers, which offers several advantages over traditional timber.

Trex obtains 50 percent of all recycled grocery bags in the nation for its composite lumber. © Corbis' width=
Trex obtains 50 percent of all recycled grocery bags in the nation for its composite lumber. © Corbis.

Plastic lumber requires no sealing, staining, painting or waterproofing. Insects are not interested in noshing it, and this material will not rot, no matter how damp the climate. Although plastic decking does expand and contract with heat and cold, special gapping methods prevent any buckling or drainage problems.

Some lumbers are made from equal parts of recycled plastic and reclaimed wood. Both Trex and SmartDeck imitate the weathering and feel of natural lumber for consumers who like wood’s more endearing qualities. Typically, this type carries a 10-year warranty.

For the purist, both U.S. Plastic Lumber, Ltd. and Polywood, Inc. produce lumber manufactured entirely from recycled plastic. While this product may be more challenging to install than the composites, a 50-year warranty offsets the extra effort.

Eco-savvy consumers demanding the aesthetic appeal of natural wood have two options: salvaged woods, such as trees toppled during storms, timber dislocated during urban renovations or wood remnants left on the forest floors after massive logging operations; and certified wood products, designated by a Certified Forest Products Council label. “That’s the only way you’ll know the wood comes from sustainably harvested forests,” says Michael Marx, executive director of the Coastal Rainforest Coalition (CRC), which promotes ecologically sound lumber alternatives.

So what timber types are taboo for the environmentally conscious buyer? Although cedar is a popular choice for decks because it is naturally rot resistant, almost all cedar sold today comes from Canadian old-growth forests that “can never be logged sustainably—or replaced,” says Marx.

Others to steer clear of are the softer, inexpensive woods, like pine. This lumber is usually treated with a mixture of chromium, copper and arsenic (CCA) to prevent mold, mildew and parasite infestations. When CCA is pressure-bonded to the wood, the timber acquires a distinctive greenish tinge.

Although experts disagree about the immediate effects to human health and to ecosystems adjoining decks built with treated lumber, there are other notable environmental ramifications. At the end of its lifespan, CCA-treated wood cannot be burned because the fumes and ashes are harmful to human and animal life. The lumber is destined for local landfills, where the bulky material refuses to decompose.

Eco-friendly Extras

Purchasing Earth-friendly deck stains, sealants, paints and waterproofing is also a solid ecological strategy. “Consumers just aren’t aware that they have healthier options than the popular brands,” says Greg Wills, spokesperson for LIVOS Phytochemistry, Inc., which produces the oldest and most complete line of plant-based finishes in the world.

Another low-toxicity and high-performance option is water-based American Formulating and Manufacturing (AFM) Safecoat, one of the first to create products specifically for consumers concerned about chemical sensitivities.

Deck furnishings can be environmentally sound, too. The Green Culture’s new Eco-Furniture website sells outdoor equipment from three sustainable sources: Several styles of benches and chairs are fashioned from certified wood; salvaged cedar is reborn as dining tables and bar sets; and each Adirondack chair transforms 500 plastic milk jugs into a comfortable resting spot.

As for deck accessories, eco-retailer Real Goods offers consumers both original creations and revamped classics. Solar path lights guide visitors to the backyard. Birds may decide to take up permanent residence in houses built from reclaimed cedar scraps, glass and edible grains. A recycled glass bug catcher modeled after medieval bee traps or a sun-powered mosquito guard will keep the insect population around your deck in check.

At the website, visitors can enter specifications for their dream decks and compare estimates for various materials. For instance, the bill for a 10-foot-by-20-foot structure, including 40 feet of railings and three steps, is $674 if built with pressure-treated Southern pine. The use of uncertified cedar doubles that figure to $1,410. The estimate for 100-percent plastic lumber—$1,668—is similar to that for uncertified redwood, $1,628. A deck built of a wood-and-recycled-plastic composite is estimated at $1,928.

While eco-friendly materials may still cost a little more, you can barbecue with a clear conscience. It won’t be the environment paying.