Recycled Plastic Lumber vs. Regular Wood (Pros and Cons)

Two photographs side by side, one showing recycled plastic lumber and the other showing a log from a tree that has been cut into planks. The letters "VS" are placed in between the two photos with an orange "splat" design around them. Across the top of the image are the words "Recycled Plastic Lumber vs. Regular Wood (Pros and Cons)."

Wood has been a staple construction material for centuries. However, with the increasing concerns about deforestation, the demand for sustainable building materials is at an all-time high.

One such material is recycled plastic lumber, which is gaining popularity as a green and durable substitute for traditional wood.

As a concerned builder or homeowner, you’ll want to know more about recycled plastic lumber vs. regular wood.

Which one will create a house that meets your needs in terms of strength, durability, eco-friendliness, and resistance to the elements?

By understanding the differences between recycled plastic lumber and regular wood, you’ll be better able to decide on the best option for your project.

In the rest of this article, I’ll compare recycled plastic lumber and regular wood in terms of their pros and cons as construction materials.

Let’s get started!

Recycled Plastic Lumber and Regular Wood

Two photos side by side. On the left is a photo of recycled plastic lumber (RPL) with a photo of a crumpled plastic bottle over the top. On the right is a photo of two planks with white paint partly covering them and with a photo of a green tree overlain.
What is used to make recycled plastic lumber vs. regular wood building products? The clue is in the name, and you can see the answer in the image above.

Recycled Plastic Lumber (RPL) is made from recovered or virgin plastic. It’s a wood-like product made of plastic and binders such as rebar and fiberglass.

It’s worth mentioning that you can easily confuse RPL and wood-plastic composite lumber (WPCL). The main difference is that the latter is made of wood flour or fiber mixed with thermoplastics like polyethene, polylactic acid (PLA), and polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

Regular wood, on the other hand, is purely made from trees. It’s a traditional construction material with great strength and durability.

Unlike RPL which goes through plastic conversion and extrusion processes, regular wood is only subjected to milling, sawing, and sanding before it can be used.

The main types of recycled plastic lumber include:

  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) RPL: It’s made of up to 95% HDPE plastic material.
  • Commingled RPL: It’s made of mixed plastic streams like polyethylene (PE) containers and HDPE drums. Usually, PE makes between 80 and 90 percent of the mixture.
  • Fiber-reinforced RPL: It’s made of plastic mixed with continuous or chopped strands of glass fiber.

Like RPL, there are different types of regular wood lumber, depending on the type of tree they’re made from. They include:

  • Cedar
  • Douglas fir
  • Cherry
  • AC plywood
  • Hardboard
  • Hardboard plywood
  • Hem fir
  • Oak

Pros and Cons of Recycled Plastic Lumber


It’s Environmentally Friendly

A photograph of green recycled plastic lumber floorboards. The words "Eco-Friendly" are written in white across the bottom of the image.
Recycled plastic lumber is more eco-friendly than regular wood in many ways.

Plastic lumber is made from high-quality, recycled plastic. Recycling these plastics helps reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills and oceans.

Moreover, RPL can be recycled at the end of its lifespan to make other products. Therefore, it will never end up in landfills or oceans.

RPL also reduces the strain on non-renewable natural resources like hardwood trees. Thus, it’s a sustainable building material that saves trees.

It’s Highly Durable

RPL is resistant to rot and the elements that weaken most construction materials. It’s also highly resistant to insects and molds, making it the ideal building material for areas with high humidity.

Building with RPL means less worry about the impact of weather on your home’s structural integrity.

It’s Easy to Maintain

RPL’s high resistance to the elements, insects, and mold makes its maintenance easy. Unlike wood which requires continual painting and sealing, RPL needs minimal maintenance.

It’s also easy to clean dirty surfaces using mild soap and water.

It Doesn’t Swell or Shrink

Because recycled plastic lumber doesn’t swell when exposed to moisture, it’s an ideal construction material for outdoor applications.

When building decks and patios in moist areas, RPL is the best choice since it doesn’t absorb moisture that will make it shrink or swell.

It’s Highly Flexible

Thermoplastics are made with long polymer molecules joined by weak bonds. These weak bonds make plastics highly flexible so that they can be easily curved and shaped into different forms.

This explains why RPL is used in many creative projects that require curves and other shapes.


It’s Expensive

A gray recycled plastic floor with an icon overlain showing a rising arrow on a clipboard with the word "cost" under it.
Recycled plastic lumber can be more expensive to buy than regular wood. However, it requires less maintenance, which could work out cheaper in the long run.

Collecting, sorting, shredding, and extruding plastics into lumber is a labor and capital-intensive process. Moreover, the process requires special machines and technology, making the production cost high.

However, although RPL has a higher initial cost, its long lifespan makes it the more cost-effective option in the long run.

It’s Difficult to Join

Joining two pieces of RPL requires expertise and special equipment. Unlike regular wood, most plastic lumber can’t be glued. They can only be joined using screws or bolted connections.

Joining recycled plastic lumber also requires expertise because slick surfaces can easily slip out of alignment.

Limited Strength

Although RPL can withstand most chemicals, It’s not strong enough for structural applications that require high load-bearing capacity.

For example, RPL isn’t ideal for columns and beams because it can crumble due to the structure’s load.

Pros and Cons of Regular Wood


It’s Cheaper

Unlike RPL, wood is readily available and doesn’t need complicated processing besides sawing and planing. This makes it a cheaper building material than RPL for most applications.

It’s Easy to Join

A secure wood joint with a wooden dowel sticking out of it. The word "easy" is written next to the joint in pink bubble writing.
Wood is very easy to work with and can be joined easily with standard wood screws or even no screws at all (if you have the skills)!

Regular wood is easy to join using nails, screws, bolts, or glue. These processes are easy, and the equipment is cheaper. Therefore, it’s easier to work with wood than RPL.

It’s Stronger

Wood comprises long, thin, and strong cells. These cells are made of lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose, all stronger than the plastic and binder mixture used in RPL. The elongated design of these cell walls makes the wood stronger than recycled plastic lumber.

Due to its strength, wood is suitable for structural applications such as columns, beams, and floor joists.

It’s Easily Paintable

Due to its porous nature, regular wood accepts most paints easily. Painting wood helps protect it from sun damage, rain, and discoloration.

Once painted, wood is an excellent material for outdoor projects.


It’s Unsustainable

Using wood for construction has a far-reaching environmental impact, particularly if sourced from forests that aren’t sustainably managed.

Deforestation is responsible for the loss of about five million hectares of forests annually. The high rate of deforestation contributes immensely towards the loss of precious habitat and contributes to global warming and climate change.

Cutting trees for wood also leads to soil erosion, decreased biodiversity, and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

It’s Susceptible to Insects and Rots

A photograph of the corner of a wooden house that has advanced rot. The light green colored siding has been removed to reveal crumbling, rotten wood behind. In the top left of the image is a drawing of a termite.
Pests and rot can cause serious damage to regular wood, especially without regular maintenance.

Termites, wood-boring beetles, and other insects can attack wood. The presence of these pests weakens the wood’s strength, increasing its susceptibility to rot.

Although wood’s susceptibility to rotting lowers its lifespan, treating it can make it more durable. An excellent approach is pressure-treating your wood with powerful preservatives like arsenic and chromium copper arsenate (CCA).

It’s Prone to Damage From The Elements

Unlike RPL, regular wood is not resistant to damaging weather like rain and sun. Therefore, it requires a protective coating to enhance its longevity.

Wood is susceptible to discoloration when exposed to the sun. It can also absorb moisture and swell or rot due to rain.

Final Thoughts On Recycled Plastic Lumber vs. Regular Wood

The choice between recycled plastic lumber and regular wood depends on your preference and the project’s requirements.

While both have pros and cons, it’s evident that recycled plastic lumber is a sustainable alternative to wood.

Although wood is cheaper and readily available, it contributes to deforestation and requires regular maintenance.

Now that you know the pros and cons of RPL vs. regular wood, why not check out this article comparing bamboo and regular lumber?

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *