Forget asphalt: a European city is building a road made entirely out of recycled plastic

Does the sight of discarded plastic swirling in the Pacific ocean — the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch — haunt you every time you throw away a soda bottle?

Dutch construction company VolkerWessels has found a unique way to make you feel less guilty.

As part of a concept called PlasticRoad, VolkerWessels aims to build roads entirely from recycled plastic that has been salvaged from oceans and incineration plants.

Shortly after it was unveiled in July, the idea attracted attention from the Rotterdam city council. The Netherlands city has now offered VolkerWessels a pilot location to test PlasticRoad. The first road will actually be a bicycle path and, as The Guardian reported, building it will take three years.

According to the plan, sections of the road would be crafted in a factory and then assembled — Lego-like — at the construction site. This means that grooves for traffic sensors and light poles could be worked in even before the panels leave the factory. The design also leaves room for hollow space below the surface, making it easier to lay cables and pipelines later.

But what makes plastic a potential alternative to asphalt, the thick black sticky substance that has long been the material of choice for highway engineers?

A road fashioned out of recycled plastic, according to the company, would be able to survive temperatures as low as -40 degrees and as high as 80 degrees Celsius. In fact, the road would last three times as long as a normal road — potentially as long as 50 years. A plastic road would also be “unaffected by corrosion” and require less upkeep, which theoretically would mean fewer traffic jams.

Ditching asphalt for plastic also makes sense if you consider what the more traditional building material does to the environment. Asphalt is to blame for 1.6 million tons of CO2 that stream into the atmosphere every year. That makes up 2% of all road transport emissions, according to The Guardian.

Once the plastic road wears out, VolkerWessels hopes to recycle it again and build a new PlasticRoad.

For now, the idea exists only on paper.

But we’ve already seen how it can work. The city of Jamshedpur in India has paved nearly 50 kilometers of roads partly, if not entirely, with recycled plastic. Bottles and wrappers are reportedly hauled to collection centres, shredded, and mixed with asphalt.

At the very least, the idea floated by VolkerWessels is a promising step on the road to solving the world’s crippling plastic problem.

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