Winners and losers: High lumber prices, tariffs on Canadian softwood a boon for plastics

Data from the Thomasnet.com platform show that sourcing activity for lumber by users is up 11% over its historical average during the past 12 weeks. “While the Thomasnet.com platform features U.S. and Canadian suppliers exclusively, our data show this sourcing trend being driven by U.S. buyers looking for U.S. suppliers,” commented Tony Uphoff, President and CEO of Thomas. “This, despite the fact that earlier this year, lumber prices skyrocketed over 60% since the early part of 2017. According to CNBC, this price surge was due in part to a perfect storm of challenges that hit Canadian suppliers: Tree-eating beetles, wildfires, a trucking and railcar shortage, and U.S. tariffs.

MoistureShield decking
MoistureShield won an award earlier this year for its Infuse decking.

With more wildfires consuming forests in the western United States, U.S. lumber soon could be in short supply. Some trees are being harvested after the burn—while they may be charred on the outside there is still valuable lumber to be harvested from the tree after the char is removed. But will that be enough to satisfy homebuilders and remodelers? Canada is the largest supplier of softwood, and the tariffs are putting pressure on builders, some of whom have had to absorb higher costs.

Maybe it’s time to consider plastics’ role in construction. While plastics have been increasing in those applications over the past couple of decades, there is room for more growth as a market for recycled plastics. Trex, for example, uses 95% recycled wood, sawdust and plastics from overwrap packaging for paper towels, toilet paper, dry cleaner bags, and grocery and shopping bags.

Azek’s plastic lumber is made from PVC. Roofing materials, such as those from DaVinci Roofing, use recycled plastics, as well. Vinyl siding has long been used as a construction material, and continues to be in demand. 

Lumber is still desirable as a framing material, and the National Association of Home Builders put the 2018 price of lumber at $350 per 1,000 board feet. Some home contractors use steel for framing, which is used in large industrial and commercial buildings, but steel has its own problems with tariffs, making it increasingly expensive. 

For home remodelers who are building decks, railing and fencing, wood-plastic composites (WPC) and plastic lumber are a good choice. When the materials’ benefits are taken into consideration, such as weather, insect and rot resistance and a useful life of about 25 years with little to no maintenance, plastic lumber and WPCs can be very cost effective. According to information found online, Trex costs about $9.38 per square foot for basic decking and $12.40 per square foot for better material. 

MoistureShield won an award earlier this year for its Infuse decking that uses the company’s CoolDeck technology to keep the decking cool for barefoot use. MoistureShield (a product of Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies – A.E.R.T.) is 95% total recycled content (38% post-consumer, 57% pre-consumer) including recycled milk jugs, grocery bags, pallet wrap, waste pallets and construction debris. The company says that, unlike wood decking, Infuse decking can be installed on the ground. 

Polyethylene (PE)-based decking runs approximately $7.82 per square foot, and polypropylene-based decking is about $8.68 per square foot. That’s compared to California redwood at $7.75 per square foot. There are cheaper wood materials such as cedar and even pressure-treated (PT) lumber, but both require maintenance and have shorter lifespans. PT lumber contains harmful chemicals—although some of the worst ones have been replaced since 2003—and it is recommended that a good coat of sealant be used on these types of decks.  

With all the talk about improving recycling rates and giving plastic waste a longer useful life, it would seem that plastic lumber and WPCs are a good solution to increasingly higher lumber prices.

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