Wood Plastics Mixtures Set For Major Growth In Europe

03 July 2003

A new European report on wood plastics composites (WPC) from the Hackwell Group examines their history and current position in both Western and Central/Eastern Europe.

The report analyses this exciting growth sector from both a technical and commercial viewpoint and assesses the position with regard to specifications, standards and environmental considerations. It examines market opportunities across the continent, including major areas such as construction, furniture and the automotive sector. Contributor Brian Hackwell says “The European WPC market is forecast to grow more quickly from now on, but with major differences from that in North America, as Europe does not have a single mass market like decking to make the production economics so obviously favourable”.

Although a major advantage of WPCs is their outdoor durability, the ability to produce rather complex profiles by extrusion may eventually be more important, as it avoids the expensive machining and finishing needed with conventional wood. So while the WPC industry has not yet exploited this point fully, the logic points in the long term to cost-effective applications in fenestration and in indoor and outdoor furniture, such as door frames and bed headboards. This contrasts with North America where sales growth of recent years has been based on simpler shapes such as decking, railing, fencing and marina boardwalks.

Another Hackwell contributor, Dick Mann, points out that wood plastics composites in their modern form began in Europe with Italian car interior panels over 25 years ago. The European technology for many WPC applications is often different from the American practice. Europeans use different wood contents; they prefer polyolefins to PVC, despite the latter’s performance advantages, and some companies use biodegradable resins. Europeans feel more confident with virgin than recycled resin and even tend to prefer virgin wood. They are more concerned than Americans about the product’s final surface appearance.

The use of recycled starting materials would undoubtedly promote the image of WPCs among environmentally conscious Europeans. But as a third contributor, environmental consultant Chris Foster points out, for this to happen on a large scale, we need more standardised specifications for post-consumer resins.

Technical contributor Professor Geoff Pritchard says that processing the high wood grades involves using specially modified equipment, as the mixes are difficult to handle. Cincinnati Extrusion has the leading position in the supply of extruders for European WPC, with an estimated 40 machines at present. European wood fibres can be decidedly wet and the cost of preparing them for extrusion should not be under-estimated.

Other fabrication processes besides extrusion are being developed, and foams will become more common, overcoming the high density of WPC, especially PVC varieties.

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