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Recycled plastic ties coming to some U.S. railroads

Axion scores a $15 million deal to provide railroad ties made from the same material as the Army's plastic bridges.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
2 min read
M1A1 70-ton tank crossing a bridge at Camp Mackall in North Carolina made from Axion's recycled plastics material. Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army/Dawn Elizabeth Pandoliano

The U.S. railroad is about to get a minor makeover.

Axion International has won a $15 million contract to make railroad ties made from recycled plastic, the company announced yesterday.

The railroad ties will specifically be made of Recycled Structural Composite (RSC), the signature recycled plastic composite developed by Axion in conjunction with Rutgers University. RSC is a thermoplastic composite produced from 100 percent recycled consumer plastics (such as milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles) and industrial plastic waste.

Axion's deal to provide replacement railroad ties over the next three years is with an unnamed company purported to be "one of the largest railroads in North America," according to a recent SEC filing by the company.

About 20 million railroad ties per year are replaced in the U.S. by the railroad industry as a whole, according to Axion. But that could change once these replacement ties are in place, as Axion claims its RSC railroad ties are longer-lasting than typical creosote-treated wood railroad ties.

The New Jersey-based company got the chance to publicly prove the strength of its plastics after scoring an almost $1 million contract in 2009 to make bridge parts from recycled plastic for the U.S. Army at Fort Eustis in Virginia. A now famous photo of a heavy U.S. military tank crossing the recycled plastic bridge made its way around the Internet at the time, gaining attention. The bridge spanned 40 by 80 feet, and had a high-load rating of 130 tons. Since then, Axion has been commissioned for two more bridges, the most recent one announced last month for U.S. Army's Camp Mackall installation at Fort Bragg, N.C. The company provides the bulkheads, pilings, I-beams, I-beam girders, and ties for the bridges.

"Axion's RSC is inert and contains no toxic materials. It will not leach, nor warp and is impervious to insect infestation. Because it is lighter than traditional materials, transporting RSC is less expensive and reduces energy costs," Axion said in a statement.

The plastic railroad ties themselves are also recyclable, according to Axion.

"This contract represents our first sizable order in the domestic rail tie market and the entire management team is extremely proud of this achievement," Axion President and CEO Steve Silverman said in a statement.