How plastic bags and bottles are being transformed into tomorrow’s roads

Future Roads

The roads of tomorrow may contain plastic that has been recycled, in place of some of the bitumen that is normally used as a binder at present. Waste bottles and bags made from plastic that would normally be disposed of in landfill are being recycled and added to asphalt for resurfacing roads. The process sees plastic pellets being created from the bags and bottles, which are then melted in an asphalt mixture. This has benefits for both the environment and the roads, because the volume of plastic waste is reduced and the roads are stronger and longer lasting. The plastic binds the separate constituents of the asphalt together more firmly than the traditional mix.

The new “plastic roads” are being tested by three of the UK’s councils: Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway and Enfield, who all hope to benefit from financial savings.

Recycled plastic accounts for about half a percent of the asphalt mixture. According to MacRebur Plastic Road Company’s spokesman, Toby McCartney, the company takes waste plastic materials that would have been disposed of in landfill and adds them into the asphalt mix, in order to create stronger roads that are also more durable.

The road’s end performance is improved and a proportion of bitumen, which is a fossil fuel, is replaced by the plastic. Mr McCartney said that the recycled plastic is more like a superglue than the bitumen that would traditionally have been used. This binds the materials together more efficiently and less material flakes off. The new roads need less maintenance and councils are able to save revenue by using local waste in local roads.

In an interview with Sky News, Dumfries and Galloway Council leader, Elaine Murray, said that they would see reduced landfill tax bills, because of the lower volumes of plastic being sent to landfill. At present, the plastic pellets cost slightly more than bitumen, but the price of bitumen can fluctuate with the price of oil, so this may change in the future. Because substantially less binder is used, this is an additional saving.

She said that the fact that bitumen, an oil industry product, is being replaced with plastics that would usually end up in landfill could be viewed as quite exciting, because it is environmentally friendly in addition to making a quality hard road surface. Ms Murray said she hoped that the new process will create asphalt that will last longer and save money.

Although the idea seems to be very successful in theory, it will have to be trialed over more time, before it can be pronounced a definite winner.

Dr Karl Williams from the University of Central Lancashire was asked by Sky News about his views on the process of using recycled plastic in roads. He said that he thought it was too soon to predict the environmental benefits that the new roads would provide, because the process is only being used on certain trial roads at present and questions remained about the type of plastics being used, their origin and how much contamination is present.