PLASTIC ROADS – Global Innovation Ecosystem

A Global Innovation Ecosystem to recycle plastic into roads is emerging, with leadership from India to the Netherlands, Scotland, and the U.S. This Ecosystem shows how collaborative intelligence in human innovation enables continuous improvement. Although these individual initiatives do not reference each other, earthDECKS (Distributed, Evolving Collaborative Knowledge System) promotes innovation by cross-referencing information via its CIQ (Collaborative IQ) Network.

40 million kilometers of roads were made using hundreds of millions of barrels of oil for asphalt, a petroleum product. Suppose we had a substitute? Why not use plastic, a recycled petroleum product, which now accounts for an overabundance of trash, rather than asphalt, a new petroleum product? The big idea to develop an alternative has triggered a goldrush of R&D and new ventures, each with its own angle on how to turn recycled plastic into a substitute for asphalt.


In the Netherlands PLASTIC ROAD is a joint venture of KWS (part of VolkerWessels), WAVIN (part of the Mexichem group) and TOTAL.

KWS is the market leader in road construction and the production of asphalt in the Netherlands. As an all-round contractor, KWS performs the construction of large, complicated and multidisciplinary (infrastructural) projects as well as small projects for local governments and private individuals.

WAVIN is the European market leader in the field of plastic pipe systems and has a large market segment and product range within the field of sustainable rainwater management. Since 2012 Wavin is part of the Mexichem Group, the Latin American world leader in the pipe system and petrochemical industry.

Because the Netherlands is below sea level and innovating to address predicted sea level rise, their initiative is leading innovation in roads as flood drainage systems. Their innovation can be adopted in the Texas initiative, informed by the recent experience of severe storms.

TOTAL is a global integrated energy producer and provider, a leading international oil and gas company and the world’s second-ranked solar energy operator with SunPower. Its activities span oil and gas production, refining, petrochemicals and marketing. In the field of polymers, Total combines key areas of expertise in catalysis, processes and products to provide high performance and durable solutions for its customers. Total supports initiatives that reduce its carbon footprint including the use and development of renewable biosourced and recycled feedstocks, in line with its commitment to better energy. This animation from the Netherlands Joint Venture PLASTIC ROAD explains their system:

Watch video!

Simon Jorritsma from InfraLinq, a subdivision of VolkerWessels and KWS Infra that works specifically with asphalt, is driving a Netherlands joint venture PLASTIC ROAD. The Netherlands has a strong culture of transport innovation, having opened the world’s first solar bike lane, a 230-foot stretch of road embedded with solar cells that are protected by two layers of safety glass. In the first six months of operation, the road produced more energy than expected: about 3,000 kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to power a single small household for one year. By May, about 150,000 cyclists had traversed the road.

The Scottish start-up MacRebur launched in 2016 with their system, inspired by seeing plastic waste in some Asian countries. Engineer Toby McCartney developed their method for recycling plastic pellets for the 10% bitumen (a petroleum product) now used in asphalt road mix. His Scottish start-up company MacRebur was winner of the Virgin Media Business Voom Start-up Award.

A team in Texas noted that the state of Texas spends about $10 billion a year on transportation. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, that is about $5 billion less than Texas needs to spend for road maintenance and repair of their 311,000 miles of road. Dr. Sahadat Hossain, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington, proposed that Texas could spend $200,000 or $300,000 on repairs instead of a million dollars on repairs and also remove millions, perhaps billions, of non-decomposing plastic bottles out of landfills. Dr. Hossain proposed to use recycled plastic soda bottles to create pins to stabilize the roads and lessen the incidence of cracks and buckling, thereby making the roads last longer. Not only is this a cheaper fix, but it is one that will last years longer than more traditional solutions. Each pin is constructed from 500 recycled soda bottles, so the environment is positively affected as well, giving Texas a green fix to a decades-old problem.

A report in The Atlantic Cities describes a two-year feasibility study done on sections of Texas Route 287 where 10-foot long pins were drilled into one section of roadway slope. The rest of the highway was left as it was; unsupported. After the study ended this past August, it was found that the supported section had moved only one to two inches, where the control sections – the ones left unsupported – had moved about 15 inches. The Texas researchers have teamed up with Dykes Paving out of Atlanta, Georgia, for implementation.

Chennai, India plans to bury plastic waste beneath roads. Chennai was an early adopter of the technology, building its plastic roads from waste materials donated by the public. In 2012 one nearby town offered a gram of gold as an incentive for citizens to collect discarded plastic bags. But in 2013 the plan was dropped, because the city could not produce enough shredded plastic waste. Influential road builders may also have been threatened by the prospect of pothole-free roads and derailed the project. But in late 2015 the mayor of Chennai announced the plastic road project would be revived, sparked by the destruction of Chennai’s roads after the floods of 2015.

In November 2015, the Indian government announced that plastic roads would be the default method of construction for most city streets, part of a multibillion-dollar overhaul of the country’s roads and highways.

In India, high-stress roads like runways and expressways are increasingly using polymer modified asphalts made by manufacturers like DuPont.

 notes in The Guardian  that adding flexible materials to strengthen tar roads has a history. The first commercial polymer-modified asphalts were introduced in Europe the 1970s.

Today North America has 35% of the global market. But where modified asphalts were previously made from virgin polymers, and sometimes crumb rubber (ground tires), now the idea is to use recycled polymers. Illinois uses modified polymers to build high-traffic truck roads, Washington State uses them for noise reduction. In rural Ontario they are used to prevent roads from cracking after a harsh winter. The most widely used polymer, styrene-butadiene-styrene, can increase the price of a road by 30-50%, though the Scottish company MacRebur argues that their method will build not only better but also cheaper roads.

Polymerized asphalts also tend not to buckle in extreme heat the way conventional roads do – plastic roads will not melt unless the temperature goes beyond 66C (150F), compared to 50.2C (122.5F) for ordinary roads. So polymerized asphalts  are frequently used on roads in the Middle East.

The Dutch joint venture, PLASTIC ROAD, the Scottish startup company, MACREBUR, and the Texas R&D effort all use recycled plastic in their alternative to asphalt, arguing that it saves oil, reduces plastic waste, AND produces stronger, better, cheaper roads. Their mission is to reduce plastic in landfills by using it for roads.

Cost was a barrier because original experiments tried to use virgin plastic for this better product. The big idea to use recycled plastic brought the cost down and turned this technological improvement in roads into a strategy to reduce plastic waste. The diverse initiatives in this space can cross-pollinate. Leadership from the Netherlands to clean up ocean plastic will provide resources to recycle into this industry. More interesting is how in a culture receptive to innovation, complementary innovations occur.

Zann Gill for earthDECKS


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