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Washington Journal: Plastic Lumber Production Replaces Lost Timber Jobs

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington; 26 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- What can be done when a traditional industry -- whether based on declining natural resources or on the needs of a Cold War that is no more -- heads toward extinction?

The small port city of Coos Bay on the Pacific Coast of Oregon has found unemployment rising as its economic base in timber and fishing dwindled. But a German-born entrepreneur named Werner Zink has come up with a partial answer with Resco Plastics, a company he created and installed on the site of a closed lumber mill.

Zink, a native of Munich, settled on the Oregon coast after falling in love with the natural beauty that he and his wife, Sabina, found while on vacation in the region. So the couple immigrated, and Zink opened a machine shop making specialty products for Coos Bay's then-thriving timber and fishing industries.

Naturally, he prospered as his customers prospered. And he lost business when they lost business: Logging became more restricted for ecological reasons, and dwindling fish stocks curtailed commercial fishing to the point that profitability all but disappeared.

About 6,000 people who lost their jobs chose to move away from Coos Bay in search of work elsewhere. Growing numbers of retired people, attracted to the coastal community's mild weather, beaches and nearby forests, are helping develop a new industry, tourism. But the city's unemployment rate still hovers around 10 percent of those seeking work -- more than double the rate of the United States as a whole.

Like those newly arrived retired folks, Zink and his wife love their adopted home. So instead of joining the exodus, they stayed. And Zink, forced to do something different, came up with a fresh idea that now is creating industrial jobs in Coos Bay.

What he did was to tap into his machinist's experience to invent machines that can make something useful from something cheap and plentiful -- namely the plastic bottles and buckets others throw or give away as junk. Zink's new machinery washes, grinds and mixes this recycled plastic, turning the former trash into treasure.

He built a machine that cleans the labels and glue from old plastic milk jugs and shampoo bottles. His first product was a new raw material from the old plastic that other manufacturers used to make pipe and other materials.

Detecting demand for building materials as timber prices began one of their cyclical rises a few years ago, Zink tried melting the plastic chips (called "feedstock" by industry) and molding it into lengths of plastic lumber with a wood-like grain of the sizes produced by the single remaining lumber mill in Coos Bay, which happens to be next door to his factory.

From there, it was a simple step to begin molding the plastic into a variety of shapes -- making mounts to support suburban mailboxes, for example, or frames to create benches. One customer is using Resco "lumber" to build picnic tables for campgrounds.

Zink's is the only plastic lumber mill between San Francisco far to the south and Vancouver, Canada, far to the north. He now has distributors for his mill's products in Canada as well as the Pacific state of Hawaii.

Plastic lumber has its limitations, of course. It is too floppy and brittle for framing buildings, and it expands and contracts too much to be good for railroad ties. But there are plenty of things it does works fine for, since it can be produced in colors that don't need repainting and doesn't rot and require replacing.

Referring to the wood mill next door, that last one remaining in Coos Bay, Zink says, with satisfaction: "We're slowing creeping up on the wood guys." For the Coos Bay region, that is good news these days, says Loran Wiese, who heads the local economic development office in surrounding Coos County. Wiese calls Zink "an outstanding example of what the rest of us have to do -- and that is diversify."