We are slowly making progress in the war against single-use disposable plastic, but it is a slow process. We are so accustomed to plastic bottles, take away cups and dishes, that it will take time and some major changes by industry before we see an end to disposable plastics. In the meantime, we still have the issue of plastic in our oceans, forests and backyards. While we work on ending the creation of plastics, what should we do with the plastic that is already here? Often it seems that plastic gets stuck in an endless cycle of single-use or short-term plastic products. There are plenty of DIY fun projects for repurposing plastic. Bottles can be used in any number of inventions like hanging gardens or decorative light covers, but unfortunately, they are somewhat fragile and eventually still end up in the recycling or landfill. There are, however, a few more permanent solutions to the plastic problem.
Plastic composites, made from recycled plastics, are being used in many structural applications. Axion Structural Innovations is an example of one company making built-to-last plastic products. They make long-lasting, rot and insect resistant, non-toxic, non-leaching structural members like railroad ties, construction beams, boards and pilings, various supports, construction mats and more decorative elements like bridges, decking, retaining walls and boardwalks. The conventional materials for many of these products are wood and metal. Wood, if managed well, is a completely sustainable and renewable resource. Unfortunately, we haven’t quite figured out how to harness our appetite for harvesting lumber. So, if we can substitute a product that keeps plastic out of the landfill and is one less reason to cut down a tree, why not? Metal is a very production intensive process and therefore a very carbon heavy process. So again, a recycled plastic substitute seems like a no-brainer.
According to the BBC, there are 40 million kilometers of roads in the world made from hundreds of millions barrels of oil. The average road mix is 90% rocks, limestone and sand with 10% bitumen to bind it. Engineer Toby McCartney engineered a mix inspired by watching people in India fill potholes with waste plastic and lighting it on fire to fill the hole. He takes the plastic and turns it into small pellets, which are added to the asphalt mix as a substitute to bitumen. A small amount of bitumen is still required, but the addition of the plastics reduces cost, increases durability and makes use of waste plastic. A great feature of this idea is that it can use recyclable plastics but can also make use of waste plastic destined for the landfill. In fact, 70% of the plastic used in McCartney’s road mix would otherwise end up in the landfill. Additionally, this concept requires very little change in practice for road builders making it a feasible improvement to adopt. This road material is currently being tested in the UK.
A similar, but more ambitious concept, is the proposal to make roads out of prefabricated plastic panels made from as much recycled content as possible. This is an intriguing idea with some advantages, but it would require a complete re-thinking of road construction. It’s a bit of a tough sell for the moment, but it has potential.
Plastic isn’t all bad; it may be possible that with a little more tweaking it can help make lighter more durable products that take the pressure off resources like timber and oil. Bio-derived plastics can be made from cornstarch or cassava root instead of petroleum products. Plastic could become a planet-saving invention, if, with heavy emphasis on the if, we are using it responsibly to create durable alternatives to petroleum-based products. Single-use plastic is certainly a major problem, but by cutting out its production and finding inventive ways to use what remains in durable useful applications, perhaps we can chip away at our ever-growing mountains of plastic.
Have you heard of a new application for recycled, reformed plastic?
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