Party on the Patio

Alternative Materials Help Make the Most of Outdoor Spaces

With summer right around the corner, installing a new deck may be the first step in planning a season of outdoor events. Fortunately, there are environmentally friendly alternatives to unsustainable and rot-prone wood-based decks.

This attractive deck was built from Trex wood polymer, a blend of recycled plastic bags and reclaimed wood.©TREX CO.

One option is Trex, a composite also known as wood polymer. Trex spokesperson Maureen Murray says her company’s product is a "50/50 blend of recycled plastic grocery bags and reclaimed wood from the furniture industry." Lainie Sleppin, a Trex sales representative, adds that the substance is a "pure mix of materials with no additional chemicals used in its production." When Trex burns it releases no harmful emissions, the company says.

With a new 25-year warranty, Trex can be used for many outdoor construction needs, including decking, railing and landscape edging. Trex benches can also be built into the design of many decks. The material is gaining popularity. Al Terry, a certified Trex contractor in New York, says, "It’s popular because it’s durable and performs very well over long periods of time." Trex has been used in park benches nationwide, at camps in Connecticut, and in the boardwalks of Spring Lake, New Jersey and the Florida Everglades.

Trex’s plastic component protects wood from moisture and insect damage, while the wood component protects plastic from ultraviolet (UV) damage and gives the decking its natural look. The material doesn’t need sealants to stand up against weather and maintains traction when wet. Murray says Trex won’t rot or splinter, and "allows you to go barefoot with no worries." Trex costs about $2 a foot, which means it is two to four times more expensive than conventional wood.

Other Options

Who would have thought that a deck could be made from recycled milk jugs? Enter U.S. Plastic Lumber, which makes its boards from a patented mix of recycled plastic and fiberglass.

Plastic Lumber bears some resemblance to wood polymers like Trex. It is also low maintenance, completely recyclable and contains no arsenic or other toxic chemicals. However, it offers a 50-year warranty and is "absolutely repellent to stains," says Nathan Kalenich, company vice president. Composite lumber’s wood component acts like a sponge, soaking up discolorants, says Kalenich. Plastic is non-absorbent and its color is fade resistant, he adds.

"Our plastic lumber is available in six wood-toned colors and wood-grain embossing is used to give a natural wood appearance to the product," says Kalenich. The plastic lumber can be used for decks, railings, railroad ties, marinas, play sets and fencings, among other uses. The material retails for around $2 a foot, making it price-competitive with Trex. Paying a bit extra for plastic lumber is a good investment in the convenience and longevity of the product, says Kalenich.

If wood substitutes are just not for you, constructing your deck from reclaimed wood will give you that natural look and feel without putting further stress on the Earth’s beleaguered forests. Sources of reclaimed (or "recycled") wood can include old buildings, bridges, railroad tracks and fallen trees. Such wood is widely praised for its durability because it largely originated from older, fully grown trees. "Large, veteran trees produce clear, straight and dense wood," explains California-based reclaimed wood contractors TerraMai. Reclaimed wood is less likely to twist, warp or shrink compared to the newer wood harvested in overcrowded tree farms, and it is often prized for its rich grain patterns, remnant "character marks" and attractive, well-worn colors.

Ask your supplier about the provenance of available reclaimed wood, or look for the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood Rediscovered Wood Certification, which gives you the assurance of a third-party authority. If you aren’t able to work with wood polymer, recycled plastic or reclaimed wood, then your next "green" option is to look for newly harvested lumber that carries the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label, which guarantees forest management meets certain established criteria (see "Behind the Label," Currents, January/February 2003).

Wood decks may be pleasing to look at, but they need more upkeep than their plastic or polymer counterparts. Sealants and finishes must be reapplied to prevent rotting and splintering. Beyond Pesticides warns that many conventional sealants can off-gas toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, and recommends less-toxic alternatives, such as AFM’s Safecoat.

JENNIFER LUCICH is an E intern who enjoys spending time in the backyard.