- Spencer Platt/Getty Images
- One of the world’s largest plastic producers, Dow Chemical, is building roads with recycled plastic as a way to reduce waste.
- Plastic roads are said to be more durable than asphalt, but some environmentalists say the process of heating plastic could release toxic chemicals.
- The idea is still being piloted in the US and Europe.
- In March, a UK plastic road company opened an entire factory dedicated to churning plastic waste into an asphalt mixture for roads, car parks, and driveways.
Beginning in 2017, one of the world’s largest plastic producers, Dow Chemical, began building roads with recycled plastic as a way to reduce waste. Their combined efforts have saved 220,000 pounds of waste from ending up in landfills.
After piloting programs outside the US, Dow has finally brought the project closer to home: In February, the company constructed two private roads at its facility in Freeport, Texas – about an hour outside of Houston – using 1,700 pounds of recycled plastic, or the equivalent weight of 120,000 plastic grocery bags.
While the roads still contain asphalt, they offer a practical use for a product that might otherwise turn into litter. (Dow wouldn’t disclose the ratio of asphalt to plastic in its formula.)
- Reuters/Mike Segar
In 2017, Dow partnered with the Indonesian government to keep the country’s plastic waste from entering the ocean. At the time, Indonesia was the world’s second-largest contributor to marine plastic pollution, prompting the nation to set a goal of reducing waste in the ocean by 70% by 2025. Dow offered technical advice on how to turn the country’s plastic into roads.
Shortly after, the company helped two Indian cities, Bangalore and Pune, develop roads from more than 100 tons of recycled plastic. In July, Dow carried out similar efforts in Thailand, the world’s sixth biggest contributor to ocean waste.
The company isn’t the only one piloting the concept. In March, the UK plastic road company MacRebur opened an entire factory dedicated to turning plastic waste into an asphalt mixture for roads, car parks, and driveways. The company has already installed plastic roads in the US, Australia, Turkey, Bahrain, Slovakia, and New Zealand.
In addition to reducing pollution, plastic roads have a number of advantages over traditional asphalt. Road experts say they’re more resistant to corrosion from weather or vehicles. Because of this, plastic roads might reduce the cases of dangerous potholes or traffic jams.
In 2015, the Dutch construction company VolkerWessels estimated that recycled plastic roads could last at least 50 years, or around three times longer than conventional roads. The company also estimated that plastic roads could survive extremely hot or cold temperatures ranging from 176 degrees Fahrenheit to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Reuters/Brendan McDermid
Despite these benefits, plastic has yet to become a fixture of US streets. Dow’s global sustainability leader, Jeff Wooster, said regulations for US roads tend to be stricter than in Asia-Pacific and often vary based on region.
“Right now we’re focused on using projects like this to increase awareness that plastic roads are a viable option,” he told Business Insider.
Some environmentalists also fear that heating plastic to make roads could release toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. (The researcher who discovered the solution to combine plastic and asphalt recently claimed that it only poses a harm at temperatures above 518 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Melting down plastic to convert it to new uses is part of a wider trend. Wooster told Business Insider that consumers are eager for Dow – and the rest of the plastic industry – to repurpose plastic waste.
It’s up to city and state governments to decide whether the solution is suitable for public roads.