The Best Plastics for Outdoor Use

When designing products for outdoor use, plastic is an effective material that should be given serious consideration. Plastics are increasingly being used to construct greenhouse panels, playgrounds, outdoor furniture, and other structures that were previously dominated by materials such as wood and glass. There are many reasons for this, but plastic’s lightweight and durable nature certainly assist in making it an ideal candidate for outdoor structures.

Despite surpassing many other materials in quality and versatility, not every plastic is created equal. The ideal plastic choice for outdoor use relies on potential budget constraints, the intended lifespan, and the required durability.

Playground using polycarbonate plastic

Why Use Plastic Outdoors?

Plastic is growing in popularity for outdoor use, but it may be difficult for the casual observer to determine why this is. In short, alternative building materials cannot match the functionality and versatility that plastics can attain, especially in the context of outdoor use.

For example, wood has historically been used for outdoor applications, such as furniture and playground equipment. Over time, it has largely been replaced by similar plastic structures. This is because even with the correct chemical treatments, wood is not ideal for outdoor use. It is still susceptible to rotting, warping, and splintering, all of which can cause injury. Additionally, it cannot be shaped in as many ways as a plastic can—typically, wood can only be shaped into rigid, angular arrangements.

Another commonly used material for outdoor use is glass. For a long time, glass was the best way to ensure light transmission, making it popular for use in structures such as greenhouses. Unfortunately, glass is extremely fragile, and even a weak impact can cause cracks or entire panels of glass to shatter.

Not only is glass rather weak, it is also much heavier than clear plastic alternatives. Like wood, both of these properties can contribute to an increased chance of injury.

In general, plastic is the superior choice for outdoor use when compared to other materials. While wood rots and splinters in the rain, plastics can withstand severe weather conditions—even snow. As well, many kinds of plastics can resist UV light and are durable, watertight, and fade resistant. However, there are several types of plastic you may want to consider when installing your outdoor application. Below we explore those options.

Acrylic Plastic for Outdoor Use

Acrylic plastic, especially in the form of a clear acrylic sheet is very well suited for outdoor use. This is because acrylic plastic has great weather resistance, allowing it to be left outdoors without significantly degrading. Acrylic plastic can sustain high levels of UV light, extreme cold, and even saltwater without its structural integrity being compromised. It can also sustain heat fairly well, withstanding temperatures of 180F without beginning to soften.

This isn’t the only way that acrylic plastic is durable. It resists scratches and dents more effectively than many other kinds of plastic, keeping structures in good condition for longer. This makes clear acrylic sheets a great replacement for glass, as it resists chipping and can sustain the impact of projectiles or falling materials. As a result, acrylic is commonly used as the backboard for basketball hoops, or in plexiglass windows for play areas.

However, acrylic isn’t ideal for every situation. Brightly colored outdoor structures should seek an alternate plastic, since colored acrylic is liable to fade in direct sunlight. Additionally, depending on the application, a stronger or more heat resistant plastic may be more appropriate.

Polycarbonate Plastic for Outdoor Use

Polycarbonate plastic was once a niche plastic due to its expense, and as a result, was often only used commercially. However, as polycarbonate has become more popular, its price has become far more accessible for both residential and commercial uses. Polycarbonate is very safe and has even been approved by the FDA for food-contact applications. It’s thirty times stronger than acrylic, but also notably more expensive than acrylic.

Polycarbonate plastic is available in a wide range of thicknesses and strengths, lending it to a variety of different purposes. It is also sturdy, available in a range of colors, and can be manufactured with varying degrees of transparency. As a result, this plastic has utility in a range of structures, such as terraces, patios, and playground equipment. In fact, polycarbonate is so strong that it’s a common choice for hurricane panels or roofing panels.

This plastic is also commonly used as a replacement for glass. Like acrylic plastic, polycarbonate sheets are lightweight, durable, and can be manufactured with high optical clarity. However, as previously mentioned, it is even more impact resistant than acrylic. Like acrylic, polycarbonate plastic is also UV resistant as well as heat resistant. In fact, polycarbonate plastic won’t even begin to melt until 120C, or 248F.

HDPE Plastic for Outdoor Use

HDPE is very well suited for use outdoors. In fact, HDPE plastic is the most commonly used material for playground equipment. This is because the material is very enduring, but also softer than alternatives like acrylic or polycarbonate. Due to this softness, if the board chips or cracks it will not have hard, sharp, and dangerous edges. While HDPE does not provide the same level of impact resistance as polycarbonate, its durable build will support a formidable amount of weight and has the integrity to outlast many other kinds of plastic.

HDPE is also easy to build with it can be shaped into plastic sheets or boards that can be cut with standard woodworking tools. HDPE sheets and boards can also be held together with standard screws. This makes it quick and easy to construct playground equipment or outdoor furniture out of HDPE plastic. Like polycarbonate, it is extremely resistant to acids, alcohols, and bases. Additionally, it will repel any graffiti making HDPE very popular for use in public spaces.

Marine Board for Outdoor Use

Marine board is a term for HDPE plastics made specifically for marine use. Marine board has the same endurance as standard HDPE, but marine board has been specially treated to allow it to be constantly submerged in water. It is very effective at repelling the negative effects of water—even saltwater. It is also extremely resistant to acid, odor, and mildew, requiring very little maintenance to maintain optimal quality. As a result, marine board is used to construct hulls, docks, swimming pool equipment, decks, and outdoor cabinetry. It is easy to machine and thermoform as needed, making it a great material for DIY construction projects.


Other Plastics to Consider

For more mechanical or utility-based purposes, other plastics can excel in outdoor conditions. For example, painted PVC is commonly used to build structures like garden fencing, trellises, or outdoor furniture. PVC is not inherently UV resistant but is often covered in UV-resistant paint to prevent degradation. Even if unpainted, PVC is commonly used to provide shielding for underground wires that require additional protection from the elements.

Another plastic to consider is polyethylene, especially ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMW). UHWM sheets are extremely resistant to abrasion and impact and can stand a lot of constant water. It is often used for marine construction applications, such as guides or runners. It is also used to create bed liners and fenders for automobiles.

Final Thoughts

Depending on which outdoor structure is being constructed, it is very probable that plastic will be the best building material available. Whether the best choice is impact resistant polycarbonate, cost-effective acrylic, HDPE, or marine board plastic will typically outlast materials like wood or glass. For that reason, plastics are an ideal choice for outdoor applications.

Ready to peruse plastics for your next outdoor project? Visit our polycarbonate plastic, acrylic plastic, HDPE plastic, or marine board offering page to learn more about the specifications of these plastics. Or, contact us to speak with an expert today.