By 2050, the world will produce over three times as much plastic waste as it ever has. This startling statistic isn’t exactly a surprise, but it is increasingly important that we try to repurpose discarded plastic. To do this on an appropriate scale (an enormous scale, really), we’ll have to use innovations that have a wide reach. One innovation that has potential to make a real impact is plastic roads.
Plastic roads were invented in India in the early 2000’s as a way to cheaply fill potholes and cracks in the road. At the time, the technique was rather simple. People would chop up discarded plastic and melt it down to fill in the road. But, as you can imagine, melting plastic in an uncontrolled way can have adverse environmental and health effects. Still, the practice sparked an idea among innovators in India and around the world. Now a new, stable, and viable form of plastic roads has been developed that could help us solve our plastic problem.
Traditional Versus Plastic Roads
Before we can get into plastic roads, you should know a little bit about regular roads. Traditional roads are typically made out of asphalt concrete, AKA blacktop. Blacktop is made using a mixture of sand and gravel bound by asphalt. Asphalt is made out of bitumen, which is a highly viscous petroleum product that holds the mixture together like glue. It is then laid over the ground to create a smooth, even road. However, as time goes on, weather and heavy vehicles will begin to break down the blacktop. This is how cracks and potholes are formed in the road. These cracks and potholes can be filled using recycled blacktop, which is essentially just old ground up blacktop.
So, blacktop can be recycled. In fact, blacktop is 100% recyclable and reusable. But, that doesn’t make it completely sustainable. Petroleum, is a high VOC (volatile organic compound) that releases harmful gasses as it is converted into blacktop and even as it ages on the ground. In a study done on asphalt in Southern California, researchers found that “ molecules released from asphalt could lead to between 1000 and 2500 tons of particulate air pollution—compared with just 900 to 1400 tons from gasoline and diesel vehicles.” Not only that, the researchers couldn’t come to a conclusion as to when in its life-cycle asphalt stops emitting these fumes. This makes asphalt a significant contributor to air pollution for a potentially long period of time.
Why Plastic Roads?
Inspired by the dire need to eliminate or repurpose ocean-bound plastic,Toby McCartney, co-founder and CEO of, MacRebur Ltd., invented a way to turn plastic into asphalt. The British company uses “waste plastics that would otherwise go to landfill or incineration,” chops them into fine pieces and mixes them with bitumen to make a durable and stable plastic road solution.
This is incredible for eliminating plastic waste because, as you can imagine, there are a lot of roads all around the world. According to some, plastic roads “in combination with other uses for reclaimed plastic, like concrete and fuel, will offer an opportunity to absorb hundreds of thousands of tons [of plastic], almost overnight.” Imagine how many plastic bottles, bags, and other waste products could be taken out of our oceans and landfills and used for our roads!
The one caveat, of course, is that plastic and bitumen both have the potential to release harmful gasses into the atmosphere (like traditional asphalt). However, plastic roads use less bitumen (around 15% less) than traditional asphalt. Additionally, they require a lower temperature to melt down, 20% less fuel used in manufacturing, and generally emit less vapors than regular asphalt. So while they won’t completely eliminate harmful emissions, they do seem to be the lesser evil. Plus, if you’re worried about the dangers of melting/melted plastic MacRebur claims that “Independent laboratory testing has demonstrated that MacRebur products do not leach plastic or generate toxic fumes.”
There is another company generating bitumen/petroleum free plastic roads
Dutch company PlasticRoad, (who are changing their name to CirculinQ), has developed another kind of plastic road. Unlike MacRebur, PlasticRoad’s product contains no bitumen or any other petroleum product besides plastic. The roads are made out of 100% discarded plastic and are built into modules that can be easily installed and replaced. They also feature a hollow underbelly that has a drainage system and sensors to “provide information for further development.” These roads are “fully circular, fully recyclable, and reusable.” making them incredibly effective for reducing CO2 emissions and ocean-bound plastic.
The only problem with 100% recycled plastic roads, is that they do not yet meet the engineering requirements for drivable roads. Instead, these roads can be used for bike paths, walking paths, and other low-weight traffic areas. In fact, in 2018, PlasticRoad completed a 100-foot path in Zwolle (a city in the Netherlands), which became the world’s first recycled plastic bike path.
More benefits of Plastic Roads
Besides eliminating landfill and ocean bound-plastic and being less harmful in terms of gas emissions, plastic roads have a number of benefits. One big benefit is that they are incredibly durable. In fact, plastic roads are three times more durable than regular roads. This means that cities will spend less time, energy, money, and carbon on recycling and repairing the roadway. Another benefit is that plastic by nature is water resistant. Instead of absorbing rainwater, plastic roads do a great job of repelling water so that it can drain and be collected.
Finally, it is worth nothing that plastic, especially discarded plastic, is CHEAP. Usually, more environmentally friendly innovations tend to be more expensive. However, the fact that discarded plastic literally has a negative value, plus plastic roads use less bitumen (which is quite expensive), consumers can expect to pay a lot less for plastic roads (maybe even half the amount!)
When you can expect to be Driving on Recycled Plastic.
Plastic roads have already been put to use around the world. MacRebur’s product can be driven on in Europe, the UK, and in major U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles. And in India where this whole thing started, the country now has over 60,000 miles of plastic roads. Other countries like South Africa, Vietnam, Mexico, and the Philippines have also installed the technology. Still, the use of plastic roads is limited. The biggest problem is that while studies show that plastic roads are three times more durable than regular roads, this relatively new technology has yet to prove this durability in a real-life road setting.
As more and more countries implement plastic roads It certainly seems like they could be a real solution to our world’s overflow of plastic waste. Still, the most important way to rid ourselves of plastic is to stop making new plastic. Without doing that, we’ll be burdened with more and more waste that even amazing innovations like plastic roads won’t be able to keep up with. In the meantime, plastic roads could be a solution that helps remove harmful waste from the environment, lessen our CO2 output, and create a more circular road repair system.
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