Resistant To Time

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

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.

“We would paint the wood ones once a year. It would take 20 to 30 minutes to paint the benches. We saved two to three man-days by simply not having to paint the benches and about a week and a half by not having to paint the picnic tables,” he explains.

“[And] I can leave the plastic-lumber ones out all year long and not worry about water soaking in and causing damage. This alone has saved us nine man-days.”

HDPE also has proven to stand up to graffiti, vandalism and the test of time.

“We have had some engraving, such as a star or name carved into the plastic. If it isn’t that bad, we’ve taken a belt sander with a fine grit and sanded it right out,” says LaGrou.

“You can see that the plastic has been remodeled, but at least you don’t have a name carved into it. If we did have one that was really deep, we would just flip over the board. Any graffiti wipes right off, and the stainless-steel bolts and screws never rust.”

Granting Picnic Tables And Benches

Communities that recycle also may be eligible for grant money from the local solid-waste district. The fact that the HDPE furniture takes a product with a 10-day lifespan and creates a product with a 50+-year lifespan makes a compelling argument for funds.

Deborah Davis, trustee of Springfield Township in Akron, Ohio, says, “The Summit-Akron Solid Waste Authority bases the grants on how many tons of recycled materials that are produced from your township. If you don’t recycle, you get nothing, but because we recycle, we’ve received grants once a year for the past couple of years.”

“We find out about parks and solid-waste district grants by looking for them on the internet and checking the area to see what grants are available,” says LaGrou.

“The joint solid-waste grant is 30/70--they pay 70 percent and we pay 30 percent. We take care of the shipping-and-handling costs so we can purchase more tables and benches with the grant money.”

What’s Next?

HDPE signs also grace park areas. Layered with various colors and custom-designed laminate inserts, HDPE materials can be used to give parks plenty of flexibility in creating signage for entrances, parking, buildings or interpretive signs.

“We have a big sign, ‘Welcome to Conner Park,’ that is 8 feet wide and mounted on 6-by-6 pillars,” says LaGrou.

“We also have plastic ‘no parking on the grass,’ ‘no golfing in the park’ and ‘no motorized vehicles’ signs because we don’t have to worry about repainting them, and graffiti wipes off with a wet wipe.”

Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC which specializes in media and public relations for outdoor recreation businesses. Her book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Cincinnati, is available online and in bookstores. You can reach her at