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Plastic Composite Could Go From NJ Landfills to Jersey Shore Boardwalks

Recycled building material developed by Rutgers scientists stands up to water, waves, other harsh conditions.

Ecotrax, a recycled plastic composite developed by Livingston-based Axion International, can replace wooden rail ties in harsh environments.
Ecotrax, a recycled plastic composite developed by Livingston-based Axion International, can replace wooden rail ties in harsh environments.

As Jersey Shore towns look for ways to rebuild boardwalks destroyed by superstorm Sandy, one local company is offering a recycled building material that it says is more durable than wood and reuses tons of plastic that would otherwise end up in landfills.

New Providence-based Axion International combines the kinds of plastic used in milk jugs and car dashboards to fabricate a substance that is strong enough to make railroad ties and is resistant to the waves and water that degrade wooden boardwalks over time.

Since 2010, the composite has also been used for projects such as short-span bridges and construction mats from Texas to Maine, and as far away as Scotland. Now it’s being proposed as part of the massive post-Sandy reconstruction effort up and down the Shore.

The material doesn’t rot, crack or degrade; doesn’t leach chemicals into the environment; and is suitable for the harsh, wet conditions where boardwalks are built, said Axion CEO Steve Silverman. The product is also recyclable.

The composite was first created by a team of scientists at Rutgers University that won state and federal grants in the mid-1980s to find ways of reusing the growing volume of plastic waste that was taking over New Jersey’s bulging landfills, causing sharp increases in dumping prices.

The Rutgers team started a curbside pilot program in Highland Park to collect plastic soda bottles made of PET but found the trash contained about 80 percent HDPE, the type of plastic that’s now a primary ingredient of the Axion material.

The HDPE was then combined with stiffer plastics such as polystyrene to produce a composite strong enough to make the railroad ties that now make up the biggest part of the company’s business, said Thomas Nosker, a professor of materials science and engineering who was part of the Rutgers team.

The university has licensed the technology to Axion for “a very small upfront payment” and “a small percentage of sales,” Nosker said in an interview.

Axion isn’t yet profitable, but its sales more than doubled in the first three quarters of 2012 on orders in the U.S. and overseas, Silverman said. Recent customers include Miami Dade Transit, which purchased 2,000 railroad ties representing about 1 million pounds of waste plastic, and Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which ordered $500,000 worth of ties as an alternative to wood that would have been the equivalent of some 2,500 trees, the company said.

In Pennsylvania, one of two locations where Axion’s products are made by a contract manufacturer, the company is now recycling HDPE sheets used by the natural gas industry for lining drilling pads, saving them from landfills where, like many other types of plastic, they would fail to degrade.

The 11-employee company has also begun selling the finished product -- called Ecotrax or Struxure depending on its application -- to the gas industry, which uses it to create temporary road surfaces that is more durable than wood for trucks and other heavy equipment, Silverman said.

But in New Jersey, the product is being used in only one location: a bridge in Wharton State Forest. Silverman attributed the low uptake to the fact that upfront costs are twice that of wood in the U.S. market. He also indicated that there is a reluctance on the part of potential customers to use an unfamiliar material, especially given the urgency of rebuilding boardwalks before the summer season.

“The big issue is adoption,” he said. “Infrastructure is a very conservative marketplace. When people are in crisis mode, they need to move quickly.”

Nosker was less charitable in his explanation of why New Jersey has been slow to adopt the material for infrastructure projects. “People are ignorant in New Jersey about these products,” he said. “Even if the railroad tie costs more, you get to save on replacement costs.”

Belmar -- whose boardwalk was destroyed by Sandy -- is using a synthetic wood called Trex as the decking for its new walkway, said Colleen Connolly, business manager for the shore town. It also considered using Ipe, a tropical hardwood, but chose not to after an environmental group threatened to seek an injunction that would have delayed the reconstruction project for weeks, threatening the start of the summer tourist season.

“It was a business decision,” Connolly said. “We couldn’t afford a six-week delay.” She said construction is on track for an April 30 opening of the new 1.6-mile boardwalk, which will cost about $7 million.

Silverman said he's in discussions with some coastal communities that are planning to rebuild after Sandy, but he wants to avoid any suggestion that he’s seeking to take advantage of municipalities that are struggling to cope with the financial and emotional trauma of the megastorm.

In the course of an interview, Silverman said that Sandy reconstruction represents an opportunity for Axion, but he recognizes that municipalities may decide instead to use traditional boardwalk materials given budgetary constraints and their need to rebuild tourist facilities quickly.

“We will get our share of that business but we understand that municipalities have their decisions to make,” he said.

Although it may be too late for Axion to sell its product to towns repairing boardwalks for the coming summer season, the extent of the hurricane’s damage will mean future opportunities for the company, Silverman said.

“Ninety percent of what’s going to get rebuilt on the shore will not be done this year,” he said.

Jon Hurdle is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter who covers energy, environmental, and general news for national and regional media.

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