Since 1950, humans have produced 8.3bn tonnes of plastic, an estimated 90% of which has not been recycled. Last year saw 30% more waste produced than in 2019, exacerbated by single-use plastics (data from the World Bank and Jeffries respectively). One of the many ‘costs’ of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the proliferation of plastic masks and gloves not to mention more food delivery containers and other similar items. Almost every forecast we encounter suggests the quantity of waste is set only to grow.
Plastic pollution may be one of the biggest challenges facing the planet. It is a topic on which we have written since 2018 and care deeply about at both a professional and personal level. We were therefore delighted when one regular and long-standing reader of our Blog recently shared this article with us. The key idea embedded in it is not only intriguing but also highly compelling and may represent one potential solution to the plastic problem.
Put simply, why not pave roads with plastic? Innovation in geographies as diverse as the UK, India and Ghana has seen the growing experimentation and substitution of a road’s bitumen (tar) surface with repurposed plastic. Everything from bags to bottle tops via polystyrene coffee cups can go into the mix. The simplicity of the underlying technology could well raise the likelihood of significant future deployment: just deposit shredded plastic on top of a mix of crushed stones and sand; heat to around 170 degrees Celsius – so that the plastic melts – and then add a layer of bitumen on the top to help it solidify. Voila, the road is ready. The aesthetics, durability and driving conditions of plastic roads are apparently no different to conventional ones.
The benefits of such an approach are significant. Three tonnes of carbon dioxide are saved from every kilometre of road paved (since the plastic is incorporated rather than being potentially incinerated). Putting plastic in the mix is also cheaper than comparable alternatives, resulting in savings of over $600 for every kilometre of road. These calculations are derived from work done by the Thiagarajar College of Engineering in India. Since 2015, it has been mandatory in the country for plastic waste to be used in the construction of new roads near large cities. Other countries may do well to learn from this example.
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