Plastic in construction

While plastic can never be considered ‘green’ by any stretch of the imagination, reusing it reduces plastic waste, and that is good for the environment, right?

Plastic RoadThe plastic road as envisaged by the Netherlands’ company, VolkerWessels.
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Landfills are often seen as the solution to disposing of plastic. Back in 2009, a graduate from RPI Masters of Architecture in the US, Henry Miller, observed that many areas cut their plastic recycling programmes for the cheaper solution of landfills, and noticed the shocking number of brownfield sites that were simply being abandoned.

Miller’s idea was to use plastic waste as an aggregate in concrete and create another, useable product. By reclaiming cement and soil from the brownfields and mixing it with ground-up plastic, Miller was able to create a material just as strong as conventional concrete and, at the time, netted him first place in the ‘Component Category’ of the second annual Concrete Thinking for a Sustainable World competition.

While on the other side of the globe, Australian researchers from James Cook University (JCU) have successfully reinforced concrete with plastic waste rather than using steel. The lead researcher from JCU found that short pieces of recycled plastic can be added as reinforcement in this material, and assured that “using recycled plastic, we were able to get more than a 90% saving on CO2 emissions and fossil fuel usage compared to using the traditional steel mesh reinforcing.” He added that recycled plastic has “obvious environmental advantages over using virgin plastic fibres”.

According to the research, the concrete was reinforced by using recycled polypropylene plastic, and various tests show that the result could be used to build footpaths and precast elements such as drainage pits and concrete sleepers. 


Supplementing aggregate with waste plastic is gaining traction, and the futuristic concept of a plastic road is fast becoming a reality.

The idea for plastic roads originated from VolkerWessels, a Netherlands-based construction firm. According to the company, plastic roads would be a “virtually maintenance-free product” that is “unaffected by corrosion and the weather”. The roads could handle temperatures as low as -40°C and as high as 80°C. The company says that this hardiness will make the roads’ lifespans three times as long as typical asphalt roads.

According to the company, any type of recycled plastic can be used. The main goal, the company says, is to keep plastic out of the oceans.

The concept for plastic roads came after the company looked at all the different road-related problems that cities face, said Simon Jorritsma from InfraLinq, a subdivision of VolkerWessels and KWS Infra that works specifically with asphalt. Those problems included a future where oil (the main component of asphalt) is less available, as well as more immediate problems like flooding and road maintenance.

“For contractors, asphalt is a great and sound product to build roads,” Jorritsma says. “However, contractors have to meet more and more demands concerning noise reduction, water permeability, and flatness. These questions and conditions were the inspiration that have led to the idea of the ‘PlasticRoad’.”

The company is also hoping to avoid some carbon dioxide emissions by switching asphalt roads to plastic ones. The carbon footprint of asphalt totals 1.6-million tons of carbon dioxide per year, the company says, so using recycled plastic instead could help cut down on some of those emissions.

Jorritsma said that using plastic instead of asphalt would cut down on the carbon dioxide required to produce, transport, and process asphalt and, he says, because plastic roads are predicted to last longer than traditional roads, the CO2 associated with regularly replacing the surfaces will also be saved.

The concept is still in the idea phase — no plastic roads are being tested in the Netherlands yet, and the company says it still needs to test the idea in a lab to see how it performs under different conditions and whether it is safe to drive on when wet, for instance. But the city of Rotterdam said that it was considering serving as a pilot for the project.

Jorritsma says that if Rotterdam ends up deciding not to serve as a pilot, other cities have shown interest, so he doesn’t think finding a site for road testing will be difficult.

References – Researchers: Recycled concrete’s time has come – Plastic Concrete: Building bricks made from landfill waste – Researchers have created concrete using plastic waste – Netherlands company introduces plastic roads that are more durable, climate friendly than asphalt 


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