By Tom Lassiter
Ask a casual furniture retailer which category is red hot and growing, and the answer you’re likely to hear is plastic. The retailer might describe the category as HDPE, or recycled plastic, or plastic lumber, or perhaps MGP, but the general meaning is the same. The furniture in question isn’t wood. It’s not metal. It’s plastic.
When consumer tastes gravitate toward a certain category, competition among the companies making that furniture intensifies. Leaders in the plastic furniture category duel it out each season, striving to increase market share with innovative designs and fresh interpretations of beloved standards. The picnic table is alive and well in casual furniture’s plastic category.
Furniture made of plastic lumber or marine-grade polymer (MGP) is one category that has not gone offshore. There’s plenty of raw material in North America (virgin plastic or recycled), and the weight of the finished product makes it impractical to ship from Asia.
Some makers of plastic lumber furniture are vertically integrated, taking post-consumer waste (often in the form of used milk jugs), processing the plastic, and extruding it into boards or panels to be cut and milled like lumber. C.R. Plastic Products takes this approach in Canada, as does Poly-Wood in the United States.
Other makers of plastic furniture depend on independent suppliers of plastic lumber and panels for the material from which they craft their products. More than a few of these furniture makers have something in common: They use extruded plastic lumber manufactured by Tangent Technologies.
Some, such as Seaside Casual Furniture Company and Berlin Gardens, depend solely on Tangent for the lumber-like extrusions used to build their furniture. Telescope Casual Furniture, which initially used only marine-grade polymer (MGP) for its plastic furniture products, recently integrated premium plastic lumber from Tangent into its product lineup.
“Even though you’ve not heard of Tangent,” said Tangent CEO Guy DeFeo, “we’ve been a leader in that space since we opened the doors in 2003.”
Tangent doubled down on its leadership with the 2016 introduction of PolyTuf Premium, the first plastic lumber with a wood-like grain. Two qualities set PolyTuf Premium apart: The material has grain, similar to real wood. It’s not only visible on the surface, but runs throughout the extrusion. This allows the product to mimic the look of wood quite convincingly when it is milled and shaped into furniture components.
PolyTuf Premium’s second distinctive characteristic is its color. A PolyTuf Premium extrusion isn’t a single shade of brown or blue or white. The most wood-like version of PolyTuf Premium contains multiple, related hues or tones that markedly increase the material’s resemblance to fine hardwoods.
Tangent Technologies has applied for a U.S. patent on PolyTuf Premium and expects approval later this year.
One Tangent customer had exclusive rights to PolyTuf Premium for a year. It then became available to all customers, DeFeo said. The aesthetics of PolyTuf Premium, he said, have caused casual furniture makers who previously had dismissed extruded plastic lumber to give the material a second look.
In the case of Telescope Casual Furniture, the grain features of PolyTuf Premium provide a radically different look to that of MGP. The material’s aesthetic qualities, DeFeo said, also have led makers of interior furnishings to consider it as an alternative to wood.
PolyTuf Premium appears to be a game-changer for the company that already is the leading U.S. supplier of extruded plastic lumber to casual furniture manufacturers.
“There are a lot of people out there who are trying to figure out where this product is coming from and how they can quickly get it into their product lines,” DeFeo said. “It’s been a very exciting time for us.”
The heightened interest in the marketplace led Tangent to set up a booth in temporary space at Casual Market Chicago last September. It featured no furniture, just samples of extruded plastic lumber and information. DeFeo said 20 of Tangent’s best furniture-making customers had a presence at the Merchandise Mart last fall. Thanks to the Tangent booth, that number probably will increase.
PolyTuf Premium, he said, has “transformed how people are thinking” about the applications for plastic lumber.
“What we can do from a technology standpoint is opening up a lot of new avenues,” DeFeo said.
The HIP Collection from Seaside Casual Furniture Company.
A Recycling Leader
The empty milk jug in your recycling bin may find its way to Tangent’s facilities in Aurora, Illinois, just west of Chicago.
Tangent buys bales of empty milk jugs and other recycled plastics from recycling companies and municipalities around the nation. The company recycles some 210 million empty milk containers annually. The milk jugs are part of the 15,000 tons of post-consumer plastic waste, specifically high-density polyethylene (HDPE), that the company recycles each year. Plastic packaging with a recycle symbol surrounding the numeral 2 is HDPE.
Tangent, founded by DeFeo and two partners in 2003, is a vertically integrated manufacturer of extruded plastic materials. Francisco Morales remains with the company as chief Innovation officer. Andy Stephens serves on the company’s board of directors but is no longer involved in daily operations, DeFeo said.
PolyTuf Premium is specifically engineered for the furniture industry and other non-structural applications, such as trash receptacles, golf course equipment and accessories, and playground equipment.
Another product line, TanDeck, is a decking material designed for residential and light commercial dock and pier waterfront applications. TanDeck is sold through marine specialty dealers.
Tangent’s third product line is PolyForce, designed to meet the more stringent structural requirements of boardwalks, dune crossovers, fishing piers, and other shoreline installations.
It’s taken nearly 20 years, but the outdoor furniture industry’s enthusiasm for plastic lumber and other types of plastic materials is beginning to catch up with DeFeo’s vision.
He was fresh out of college when he went to work for Eaglebrook Plastics, which began as an Illinois recycler in the early 1980s to make plastic lumber for decking and other uses. The company didn’t emphasize plastic lumber for furniture, but DeFeo was convinced that channel would one day be a tremendous business, and he concentrated on that aspect of the business.
DeFeo stayed on when Eaglebrook was purchased by a competitor also focused on the decking business. He eventually left that company and, with Morales and Stephens (also plastic lumber veterans), launched Tangent Technologies. Their focus would be what DeFeo calls OEM clients, companies that buy Tangent’s plastic lumber to build their own products.
DeFeo, then and now, likes the OEM business because “it’s very repeatable.” Tangent’s customers buy plastic lumber to build things, sell them, and buy more of the extruded material.
The Tangent recycling plant.
Tangent in the early days had no distributors and no sales representatives. DeFeo handled production. “It was just basic, good old business-to-business contacts and customers,” he said.
Tangent, he explained, was “a custom shop” that found customers that needed material of a specific size. “We had the expertise internally to design products around (the customer’s) application,” he said.
Tangent in 2003 ran the four production lines in a 20,000 sq. ft. facility. Today the company has 40 production lines, around 230 employees, and occupies 600,000 sq. ft.
The company’s success, he said, is based on its ability to supply product consistently, even as demand fluctuates, and to continually innovate. That’s especially true now that the plastic furniture category is booming.
DeFeo said the plastic furniture category is growing about 10% annually, while the casual furniture industry as a whole is growing at 3% to 4% annually.
Furniture makers, he said, must have “a supplier that can grow with them and have surge capacity.” In other words, when a furniture company has a hit on its hands and needs to build 30% more plastic furniture products than forecast, Tangent must be able to crank out the material.
Just as important is the ability to innovate and develop premium products that keep Tangent’s OEM customers “out front.” PolyTuf Premium, DeFeo said, offered such innovation, and the market responded. “Now they have a product,” he said, “that looks, from two feet away, identical to high-end hardwood.”
DeFeo and his partners saw the potential for plastic lumber in the outdoor furniture business early on. “We knew, even back in those days,” he said, “that the furniture industry probably was going to be the biggest” customer of Tangent’s products. But earning the business of those furniture makers and keeping them coming back would require guaranteed performance and continual innovation.
That philosophy has worked for longtime customers Berlin Gardens and Seaside Casual. “They’re a good supplier for us,” said Sam Yoder, president of Berlin Gardens. “We have a good partnership with them.”
Bales of milk jugs ready to be recycled into “lumber.”
Tangent is “very good at what they do,” said Kate Carret, CEO of Seaside Casual. “They’ve got the best material out there.”
Today, DeFeo said, Tangent has certain capabilities that are unmatched by competitors. The company, for instance, can extrude a panel of plastic 60 inches wide and make it any length.
PolyTuf Premium is the only plastic lumber in the world with “an internal wood grain that runs continuously through a cross section,” he said. “That’s really the innovation that ties it to the look of real wood. That’s really what got people excited, especially the higher-end, more sophisticated furniture companies.”
In the past, he said, makers of high-end casual furniture viewed recycled plastic lumber “as an inferior product. I guess that’s the best way to say it.” Plastic lumber’s durability, weight, strength, and low-maintenance characteristics were highly desirable. But its appearance – the obvious fact that it was plastic – was an issue for some manufacturers and markets.
Tangent’s push to create a product with the look of high-end hardwood came from casual furniture makers as well as from specialty retailers. The company conducted field research, interviewing retailers about customers who purchased plastic lumber furniture and, more importantly, about those who did not.
Dealers told Tangent that “there was a whole demographic that they were losing.” Sales were lost because the plastic lumber “was not close enough to the look of wood for (consumers) to spend that kind of money on it.”
Consumers instead chose to spend twice as much for a chair made of ipé or teak, even though a wooden chair exposed to the elements often requires regular care and maintenance to maintain an as-new appearance.
Now, DeFeo said, Tangent’s top-end plastic lumber provides an option for customers who want “the look of a really high-end hardwood without the maintenance. And it’s been very successful for us.”
The company has a track record of working closely with furniture companies to provide custom solutions for their designs.
“We have literally hundreds of sizes” of extrusions, DeFeo said. Many “have been created around specific applications for our customers.” Seaside Casual, for example, might provide a rendering of a new product that calls for legs of a certain dimension and a seat back with other non-standard characteristics.
“We have the ability to create any type of extrusion that our customers would need,” he said.
Garden Classic Fire Table and Comfo-Back Chairs from Berlin Gardens.
Tangent’s innovative abilities also apply to what DeFeo calls “the extrusion side.” As volume demands increased, the company faced the challenge of investing more capital in additional extrusion equipment or “figuring out how to get the current extrusion line to run twice as fast.”
The company, he said, chose the latter.
Tangent’s ability to manufacture, he said, is second to none. “We’re always innovating ways to make products faster, better, more efficiently. That’s all part of the equation,” he said.
“We’ve got to be nimble. We’ve got to be innovative. We’ve got to be resourceful, so we can still make the margins we want to make.”
The recycling stream that feeds Tangent’s process is wider and deeper than just post-consumer waste, such as milk jugs and detergent bottles. Tangent also works with its customers to reuse scraps of plastic lumber that are byproducts of the manufacturing process.
“We have a closed-loop recapture program,” DeFeo said. Furniture companies send “truckloads of material back to us. We repurchase it and then reuse all of that into our mix.”
The casual industry’s embrace of Tangent’s plastic lumber that looks like hardwood, and the growing interest of makers of interior furnishings, has DeFeo optimistic about the company’s future.
Tangent will continue to produce plastic lumber that obviously is plastic. Many consumers, especially those with coastal or lakeside waterfront properties, love the vibrant colors and smooth textures that are hallmarks of many styles of plastic lumber furniture. Those products, DeFeo said, “are still the flagship of what we sell.”
But the wood-grained, “higher-end aesthetic product is going to be a big component of what we do,” he said. “Five years from now, I imagine it may represent 50%” of Tangent’s business.
Plastic Furniture — What's Not to Like?
It’s heavy. No tariffs. No trees felled. No fuel burned. Recyclable. Indestructible?
Quality plastic furniture isn’t all that different from other types of casual furniture. The good stuff isn’t cheap, and sometimes shoppers have to be educated about that.
A deep-seating group or a dining set constructed of plastic lumber or panels of MGP may cost as much as, or maybe more than, a competing product made of resin wicker, or hardwood, or aluminum.
Grant Henegan, owner of four Fire House Casual Living Stores in North and South Carolina, said that educating consumers about good-quality plastic furniture, and why it costs what it does, is one of the category’s challenges.
Yet that hasn’t stopped him from expanding the offerings of plastic furniture available at Fire House Casual Living. For 2020, he’s added a third well-known brand. Joining furniture by Seaside Casual and Pawleys Island is Poly-Wood.
“I think we’ve got a good range now,” Henegan said. “We’re excited about the category.” Henegan is excited because, once people understand the plastic casual furniture story, sales often follow.
It’s a good time to be in the business of making and selling plastic casual furniture. Growing numbers of consumers are embracing the category. The benefits of plastic furniture fulfill many of the requirements of today’s harried homeowners, people who want to spend their time away from work using their outdoor furniture, not perpetually cleaning and maintaining it.
The furniture tends to be darn near indestructible, requires no more maintenance than an occasional wash-down with a hose, and is heavy enough to resist gusts on the Great Plains or the sustained blow of a nor’easter.
People who are looking for classic Adirondack styling, or something more transitional, or even contemporary, can find options from a number of manufacturers.
U.S. consumers who care about spending their dollars on domestically made products often find what they are looking for in plastic furniture. Canadians can keep their dollars at home by purchasing goods made by C.R. Plastic Products, the behemoth of that market.
U.S. consumers have a wide range of American-made brands from which to choose, including one of the industry’s most famous, Telescope Casual Furniture.
Many brands of plastic furniture depend on specialty retailers as their primary sales channel. The customization available from brands such as Seaside Casual Furniture, Telescope Casual Furniture, and others make plastic furniture, which can command medium- to high-end prices, less likely to experience competition from online and mass merchant sellers.
Here’s another reason specialty merchants like the plastic casual furniture category: Sourced from North America, the products avoid tariffs resulting from the lengthy and ongoing trade spat between the United States and China. Stable pricing makes everyone happy, manufacturers as well as retailers.
Last, but certainly not least, the environmental story couldn’t be better. No trees are felled to make plastic furniture. No fuel is burned to ship it across the Pacific. Much of the furniture is made of plastic reclaimed from recycled milk jugs and other consumer plastic waste bearing the No. 2 recycle symbol.
This means that when the day comes for the furniture to be retired, it can go back into the recycling stream to become something new again.
What’s not to like about plastic casual furniture?
Here’s a look at some of the leading brands competing for shares of this growing market.
Edge Four-Piece Modular Deep Seating Set with Ottoman by Poly-Wood.
Poly-Wood enjoyed sales that grew more than 10% in 2019, said Megan Pierson, senior vice president of Business Development. Business, she said, “has been fantastic.”
The company in October 2018 opened a second facility in Roxboro, North Carolina, to complement its existing manufacturing plant in Syracuse, Indiana. The North Carolina plant now employs about 100 people, Pierson said, with plans to eventually employ about 500.
When fully operational, the plant will mirror operations in Indiana by processing recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) material, extruding plastic lumber, and making furniture.
Pierson said growth is trending upwards throughout the product line. Adirondack chairs and rockers remain Poly-Wood’s “bread and butter” products, she said, while deep-seating and dining products continue to gain strength.
Dining has done particularly well during the last two seasons, she noted.
Continual innovation in material colors and finishes keeps Poly-Wood’s product lines fresh, she said. “As we’ve grown over the years, designs have gotten a lot more sophisticated,” she said. “There are different looks that we could never do before. We’ll be releasing different finishes over the next few years.”
Aurora Fire Table and MAD Chat Chairs from Seaside Casual Furniture.
Seaside Casual Furniture
The plastic lumber casual furniture category is exciting, says Seaside Casual CEO Kate Carret, because it is “still emerging.”
New markets continue to open as regions of the United States warm up to the notion of plastic outdoor furniture. Most production has been located east of the Mississippi, and plastic furniture is just now gaining traction in some West Coast markets.
“We continue to expand on the West Coast and internationally,” Carret said.
Seaside Casual considers itself the design leader in the plastic lumber category. Recent design innovations include expanding into mixed media with the HIP Collection, which features aluminum frames, and plastic seating and table surfaces. Other collections include surfaces with woven resin or woven rope on plastic lumber frames in the MAD Collection.
Designers and contract customers have started to embrace these mixed-media looks, she said. The future “looks very promising for us,” she noted.
Seaside Casual uses plastic lumber extrusions manufactured by Tangent Technologies. Seaside created its own brand for the plastic material, calling it EnviroWood.
The premium wood-grain product from Tangent “allows people to pick and choose and put their personality” into their Outdoor Room, Carret said.
She sees lots of room for growth in the years ahead as the attributes of plastic lumber become more widely accepted. “It’s still a material people don’t know a lot about,” she said.
Mayhew Chat Chair and Square End Table by Berlin Gardens.
Competition in the plastic lumber category is growing because “there are a lot more players in the market than 10 years ago,” said Sam Yoder, president of Ohio-based Berlin Gardens.
As a result, he said, “we have to stay sharp, stay focused, and come up with new ideas.”
The classic Adirondack chair, a staple in the plastic category, cannot be counted on to increase in sales every year. The company is testing new designs in deep seating and exploring mixing aluminum with HDPE lumber made by Tangent Technologies. “We’ve got some new things we’re not ready to talk about right now,” Yoder teased. “We’re testing some alternative materials, rather than just plastic.”
The company has stretched its design muscles in recent seasons with introductions such as Mayhew, a decided departure from Adirondack styles. The furniture has a transitional profile and numerous components for a variety of seating configurations. Mayhew primarily is a deep-seating line but also has a cushionless chat chair.
Berlin Gardens sells through some 300 casual furniture retailers in the United States and Canada.
Counter-height Bar Stool from the Generation Line by C.R. Plastic Products.
C.R. Plastic Products
Plastic lumber furniture’s “sustainability story” continues to generate interest and motivate shoppers, said Meghan Robinson, director of Sales and Marketing for C.R. Plastic Products. “People are increasingly aware of the environmental issues that we’re facing,” she said.
That’s gratifying to a company originally known as Canadian Recycled Plastic Products.
Like other manufacturers, C.R. Plastic Products has expanded its product offerings from Adirondack (Muskoka) styles to looks that are in high demand today. Deep seating, Robinson said, “is our highest growth category.”
Indoor styling and outdoor functionality “has been a large part of the company’s growth,” she said.
Dining furniture also drove growth in 2019. The Harvest dining table, with seating for up to eight, did particularly well.
The company’s color palette currently is strongly driven by blue shades, Robinson said. New for 2020 is a Navy blue extrusion.
Going forward, C.R. Plastic Products will focus on developing the contract and hospitality markets. The company’s heavy, durable products are well suited to those applications and “the whole condo market,” she said.
C.R. Plastic Products has 25 independent sales representatives covering the U.S. market and serves customers from a distribution center in North Carolina.
The Newport Collection from Telescope.
Telescope Casual Furniture
Telescope Casual Furniture introduced its first MGP (marine-grade polymer) products in 2009, using the same material used to create bulkheads, cabins, and other components of offshore cruisers and fishing boats. MGP products, with their distinctive smooth, hard surface, rapidly became an important part of Telescope’s catalog.
More recently, Telescope introduced additional variety with an extruded material it calls Rustic Polymer, or Rustic Poly. Rustic Poly, unlike MGP, has surface texture and wood-like grain throughout. Rustic Poly is sourced from Tangent Technologies.
The Tangent material has “wonderful color reproduction” along with “grain going all the way through the material,” said Telescope executive vice president Bill Vanderminden.
Telescope does not make any products that mingle the two varieties of plastic. Aesthetically, “the look of them is a bit different” and not complementary, Vanderminden said.
Rustic Poly appears as accents in a number of collections, such as Bazza and Belle Isle. Tables with aluminum frames may incorporate MGP or Rustic Poly, he said.
The new Newport Collection, which is described as an updated Adirondack look, features Rustic Poly arms and seating surfaces on aluminum frames.
MGP products have been embraced nationwide, Vanderminden said, and are an important part of Telescope’s commercial offerings. The widespread acceptance, he said, “shows the durability and strength of the material, that it can work in a lot of different areas.”
The importance of MGP, and now Rustic Poly, to Telescope’s overall business cannot be overstated. Furniture incorporating plastic now accounts for “north of 30%” of Telescope’s revenues, Vanderminden said.
Manhattan Forge Dining Table Set from the David Lewis Collection by Wildridge.
Wildridge, another Ohio-based furniture maker, introduced its first casual products in 2012 after more than a decade of building children’s playhouses and play structures.
The move to furniture “has been very good for us,” said president Dan Schlabach. “We feel like we’re on a good path.”
The company’s five collections encompass casual motifs from Adirondack to transitional deep seating. Schlabach said specialty retailers can look forward to some exciting new products to debut at the Casual Market in September.
Tangent Technologies is the sole supplier of plastic lumber for Wildridge.
Durawood Counter-Height Chairs from Hatteras Outdoors.
Hatteras Outdoors & Pawleys Island Outdoors
The plastic lumber furniture branded Hatteras and Pawleys Island is heavy and built to withstand the hurricane winds that occasionally assault the coast of the Carolinas. Hatteras Outdoors and Pawleys Island Outdoors are products of The Hammock Source, parent of the Hatteras Hammocks, Pawleys Island Hammocks, and other brands.
Adirondack chairs remain a staple of the brand’s business, but deep seating and dining products also are doing well, said Walter Perkins III, company president.
The brands are built of an HDPE lumber that Perkins’ companies have branded Durawood. Tangent is not the source of the material, Perkins said.
The material, he said, is heavier and thicker than most HDPE lumber. “Our chairs are actually four or five pounds heavier” than a similar design from a competitor, he said. “We don’t want it blowing around on the porch.”