We may soon be driving on last year’s plastic bags and bottles, fished out of the ocean. A new project in the Netherlands is turning plastic waste–especially scraps that couldn’t be used for anything else–into new roads.
“The concept is based on the use of all kinds of waste plastic, but mainly the part of the waste stream that doesn’t already have ‘high end’ recycling applications and would ordinarily be burned,” says Alex van de Wall, an innovation manager at KWS Infra, the company testing the new plastic roads. “One of the sources is the so-called plastic soup floating in our oceans.”
Plastic roads have several advantages. Recycled plastic has a dramatically lower carbon footprint than making asphalt, which is responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions. It’s also easier to work with and longer lasting.
Unlike asphalt or concrete, the modular roads can be made in a factory and quickly snapped into place, like Legos. A road can be built in weeks instead of months. Based on other plastic building materials, the company expects the roads to last three times longer than traditional roads. The modular pieces also make repairs easier and cheaper.
The plastic can also be white instead of black, helping keep cities cooler by reducing the heat island effect from typical pavement. The list goes on. “Once we have the concept translated into the actual product, there are many options,” says van de Wall. “Color, but also auxiliary functionalities such as navigation systems for vehicles, energy storage, and noise reduction.”
Once the road wears out, it can be recycled again–ideally into another road.
While there will be technical challenges, like the fact that plastic reacts to changes in the temperature and roads get very hot, the company is confident they’re solvable problems. “We believe practically every technical challenge can be met,” he says. The company is looking for partners in the plastics and recycling industries to vet the financial feasibility of the design.
They plans to test the new road in the lab, and then move to a new “street lab” in Rotterdam to build a prototype that can actually be used. The street lab is in the city’s harbor, where old industry is disappearing and the neighborhood is being redeveloped–and will temporarily serve as an innovation district.
“Our goal is innovation for the public space,” says Jaap Peters, who leads the street lab. “It’s important, because like other cities, we have all paved roads. We want to move to autonomized public space with green energy and adaptive materials. … With the plastic roads, you can address more problems in one solution.”
The company hopes to begin testing the concept soon and may ultimately take the design abroad. “If all goes well, there is no reason why the concept could not be exported,” says van de Wall.