Recycling Creosote-Treated Railroad Crossties

Recycling and Reuse of Creosote-Treated Wood

The majority of railroad crossties in North America are treated with creosote to extend crossties’ useful life. But what happens to crossties when they reach the end of their service? The majority are recycled and reused.

Creosote-treated wood crossties’ recyclability is an important feature given that wood is the only resource we have that is renewable.

Before it reaches the recycling stage, the wisdom of using wood is clear. Consider a few points:

  • Wood is the only engineered structural renewable material
  • Wood can be treated and preserved in order to greatly lengthen its service life
  • Engineered structural wood products are important for use with the infrastructure requirements and needs for building materials
  • Wood usage as structural building material has been a longstanding part of civilization. In fact, engineering handbooks used by structural engineers were based on wood until the late 1920s, when steel and concrete usage became the focus.

Combustion and Cogeneration Recycling of Railroad Crossties

A number of studies and surveys have been produced over the years relating to railroad crosstie recycling.

One source for recycling data is the 2014 Railroad Ties Survey, produced for the Railway Tie Association (RTA), the Association of American Railroads (AAR), and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA). Released in 2015, this survey points out that 53.8% of crossties were disposed of by approved and permitted cogeneration in 2008. In 2013, the survey indicates that 81.3% of crossties were recycled via combustion.

In other words, the survey at the time indicated that “Class 1 railroads have been transitioning to less recycling of ties for landscape type uses and more to recycling for energy recovery.” (p. 5)

US EPA stated in its 2018 ruling that creosote-treated railroad ties are a non-waste fuel and are classified as non-hazardous secondary materials for use. The rule covers railroad ties that are processed and then used combusted in units.

Landscaping Reuse of Crossties:

Crossties are also used for landscaping timbers. A reported titled “Management of Used Treated Wood Products” states that “a high percentage of material removed from initial use retains enough of its original structural and preservation characteristics to make it usable in other treated wood applications.” (p. 2) According to the RTA, the average life in the track of a railroad crosstie is between 33 and 42 years. The Railroad Tie Survey Report’s data from 2013 shows that 17.1% of crossties were repurposed for landscaping needs. (Table 2 – Ties Disposition)

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Creosote as a Preservative: Q&A

Our FAQ page is updated on a continuing basis to answer frequently asked questions about creosote’s use as a wood preservative. 

Creosote and the Railroad Industry

Coal tar distillates in the form of creosote are a cost-efficient and integral part of North America’s transportation industry. Creosote was first used in the railroad industry in 1838 and still maintains approximately 98% of the North American crosstie market.

Railroad crossties distribute the load of railroad cars and maintain gage between the rails. Close to 1 billion crossties are currently in service.

Of the current track mileage in the United States, 200,000 miles are privately owned with an additional 20% owned by port authorities and the federal and state governments.

It is estimated that 24 million crossties were inserted into the railroad system in 2017 alone. Creosote-treated crossties represent 93% of that total.