It doesn’t take a civic engineer to notice that ruts and potholes are the norm among many stretches of road, but the American Society of Civil Engineer’s latest infrastructure report makes it clear the problem is a big one with America’s roads receiving a near-failing grade of D when it comes to condition. And that fact poses a long-term problem for federal, state and city officials in charge of financing maintenance. Imagine how beneficial it would be if there was a way to patch up roads with a fraction of the cost, time commitment and frustration of motorist detours and traffic jams?
That’s exactly what Dutch construction firm VolkerWessels has done. This July, the company proposed a plan to pilot a new type of road surface created entirely from recycled plastics. The project, named PlasticRoad, involves pre-fabricated plastic slabs that can be installed quickly (in weeks rather than months) and replaced when damaged easily. Included in the design is a hollow center to facilitate the installation of utility pipes and wiring without laborious digging.
Driving on Coke Bottles
VolkerWessels will source the plastic from ocean landfills, where there is no shortage of material—10 metric tons of plastic fragments (things like soda bottles, milk jugs, discarded packaging) are carried into the Pacific Ocean every day. The development of a new, large-scale use of recycled plastic, like the one PlasticRoad calls for, would have great environmental benefit by clearing refuse from the sea. But that isn’t the only reason the project has been presented as a more sustainable replacement to asphalt.
As the Independent reports asphalt is responsible for 1.6 million tons of global carbon dioxide emissions a year. Additionally, asphalt is time-consuming to lay, requires extensive construction, and needs frequent maintenance. Compare this to the easy-to-install plastic slabs prototyped by VolkerWessels and it seems a simpler, more durable solution to the problems associated with the traditional method of building asphalt roads is on its way. The slabs are reported to withstand weathering from temperatures -40 to +80 degrees Celsius, and are resistant to corrosion, which, according to VolkerWessel’s assessment, would result in a lifespan three times longer than that of a traditional road.
The First Stretch
The Netherlands may be the first country to benefit from a greener alternative to asphalt, with the South Holland city of Rotterdam opening their arms to the concept of paving with plastic. Jaap Peters, from the engineering bureau of Rotterdam’s City Council, told the Guardian: “We’re very positive towards the developments around PlasticRoad. Rotterdam is a city that is open to experiments and innovative adaptations in practice. We have a ‘street lab’ available where innovations like this can be tested.”
It may be awhile before Rotterdam gets to pilot the plastic roads as the project is still in the prototype phase, but according to Rolf Mars, the director of VolkerWessels’ roads subdivision, KWS Infra, the first fully recycled roadway road could be laid within three years.
Dutch drivers will be the first to travel on plastic roadways, but the innovation’s greatest potential may be how it could affect urbanization in the developing world. According to Good Magazine’s Mark Hays, if PlasticRoad is a success it “could revolutionize infrastructure across the world, simultaneously evening economic playing fields for developing nations and sparing the earth a huge chunk of pollution.”
Not only will the recycled roads be putting plastic waste to good use, without the pollution levels of asphalt, they will simplify what are currently complicated, expensive, and slow-moving infrastructure projects in developing nations. Since the plastic slabs that break down can be recycled into a new road, the monetary and environmental cost of street maintenance will be significantly reduced. And because the plastic slabs would be substantially lighter than asphalt, laying a foundation of concrete over soft land will be unnecessary which will make for a quicker install.
Hays believes these advancements aren’t just a perk for Dutch developers, but potentially an equalizer for developing nations who have had their growth stemmed by the snail-like crawl of traditional infrastructure projects, and for whom this innovation may bring “a swift and powerful boost to the development of their local economies and national wellbeing.”