Plastics are a Building Block for the Future. While plastics are most commonly known for their use in food packaging or for beverage bottles, the material is critical to a number of other industries including aviation and automotive.
Another area where plastics’ crucial role is often overlooked is the very ground on which we walk, run and drive.
Plastics are a vital part of infrastructure projects worldwide, creating more durable roads and keeping more post-consumer plastics in the circular economy and out of landfills and the environment.
Plastics are a Building Block for the Future
Communities are already investing in plastic infrastructure
In the United States, many state-level governments are already investing in plastic to strengthen existing infrastructure and build new, more durable roads, highways and bridges.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (DOT) is piloting a recycled plastic modified asphalt mixture (RPM) that uses post-consumer low density polyethylene (LDPE) from food wrappers, high density polyethylene (HDPE) from shampoo bottles or milk jugs, and polypropylene (PP) from water bottles to pave new roads.
Additionally, the California DOT is testing a technique that integrates plastic waste into road repaving to reinforce the roads while recycling 100% of the existing asphalt.
This program is decreasing plastic waste and eliminating emissions from removal and transport of old asphalt to landfills or other waste sites.
Another key benefit of plastic road technologies is their versatility.
The Departments of Transportation (DOT) in Iowa and Pennsylvania are testing out NewRoad, an additive made from mixing recycled industrial and post-consumer plastic bottles, packaging, bags, and other waste with asphalt, to reinforce roads so they last longer and require less maintenance than standard paved roads.
In addition to asphalt, NewRoad can also be added to concrete for a new, more affordable material that is 63% lighter than traditional concrete, and just as strong.
This new product also eliminates or lowers labor and shipping costs because the lightweight blocks do not require adhesive or masonry to shape or place, and requires less fuel to transport.
New Road is already in use in Minnesota and Florida, and reportedly lowers road costs by 30% due to improved durability and limited maintenance compared to traditional roads.
Efforts like these that create healthy and environmentally beneficial end-of-life options for post-consumer plastics can build a more circular economy while improving our roads.
Continued efforts from both industry and government, along with support from consumers, will help these projects be successful in the future.
Plastics make regional infrastructure adaptable
Plastics contribute to paving technologies that are more adaptable to the different needs of regions and communities across the globe, including those with varying weather patterns, geographies and existing (or lacking) public services.
In 2015, India started using plastic waste to construct roads near cities of over 500,000 people as a way to limit landfilling or deterioration of the material due to the country’s limited recycling infrastructure.
In the years since, over 14,000 miles of new roads have been installed, and the technology has created better, more durable roads by slowing surface deterioration and limiting potholes.
Most importantly, recycling plastics into asphalt mixtures instead of incinerating the waste saves up to three tons of carbon emissions for each kilometer of road created.
In the Netherlands, rising sea levels and frequent flooding cause roads to deteriorate at a faster rate than average, meaning that Dutch roads need to be repaved over twice as often as those in other countries.
Engineers turned to plastics for a solution, creating Plastic Road from recycled plastic materials.
The prefabricated road is hollow, enabling temporary storage of rain or floodwaters for slow and controlled drainage without damaging the road surface.
These new roads last three times longer than even traditional roads (and six times longer than previous Dutch roads).
Plastics’ ability to address both societal and environmental needs in road production while contributing to the circular plastic economy sets it apart from other building materials, and makes it the smart choice for future projects
Plastics build off of current success for future benefits
Not to be complacent with the benefits of plastics in infrastructure like roads, the plastics industry is continuously innovating new plastics technologies to benefit both environment and consumer.
California-based startup ByFusion global has created ByBlocks concrete blocks from plastics that are less often recycled like bags and food containers.
Their “Blockers” machines use force to fuse plastic waste together into construction-grade blocks that can be used like standard concrete blocks.
Best of all, the manufacturing requires no sorting or processing of the waste and uses 100% of plastic inputs—giving post-consumer plastics a new life, even in areas that lack the resources for extensive recycling infrastructure.
The U.S. Congress also sees the benefits of plastics in infrastructure and has commissioned a study on post-consumer plastics in infrastructure from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The study’s purpose is to “identify opportunities for repurposing plastics waste in infrastructure,” underscoring Congress’ belief in the benefits of current plastics infrastructure projects, and the promise of innovations to come.
Existing innovations in plastic roads and other building materials will only become more popular with government support, further advancing the circular economy while improving public roadways.
Plastics play a critical role in existing and future infrastructure projects by creating durable, long-lasting roads that reduce carbon emissions by repurposing hard-to-recycle plastics.
Both industry and government are interested in and support current technologies, and continued investments in future innovation will highlight how plastic roads can continue to support communities worldwide.