In Rotterdam, the firm VolkerWessels plans to use recycled plastic to build roads based on a prefabricated assembly system
Write: Carlos Carabaña
We’re going to share some horrendous information with you. We produce 20 times more plastic waste than in the 1960s and if you Google the term “ocean garbage patch” you’ll see a large area of the Pacific and another in the Atlantic covered with rubbish, most of all plastic. According to current estimates, if we continue like this, by 2050 there’ll be more tonnes of plastic in the seas than fish. In Holland and India they’re developing a possible means to mitigate this problem.
In Rotterdam, the Dutch city famous for its trailblazing architecture, the firm VolkerWessels is innovating through a striking new project that might just revolutionise our approach to building highways. Named PasticRoad, this is an ecological initiative that could help us to clean up the seas as well as stop using cement. It must be said that, at present, the project is an idea on paper, although it could become a roadbuilding reality within the next few years.
Taking into account the huge problem of plastic marine waste, this company had an idea. What if they rescued the plastic waste from the sea and, instead of incinerating, recycled it? And why not create a kind of modular assembly system similar to kids’ toys in order to make roads? Aside from cleaning up the sea, it would help to reduce the millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere every time asphalt highways are constructed.
Rolf Mars, a spokesperson for the firm, explained in an interview published in The Guardian that these road surfaces could withstand temperatures ranging from -40C to 80C and would wear equally well as asphalt. The fact that the road surface is prefabricated is a time-saving advantage; construction is cut to a number of weeks as the whole manufacturing process takes place in a factory rather than on site. What’s more, this system enables maintenance and road alignment changes to be carried out much easier than at present. These roads are hollow too, allowing for simpler installation of cables, utility pipelines and other services.
These roads will contaminate less and last longer.
According to the company, the idea emerged through questioning whether or not asphalt, used for so many years, was still the solution to current day road-building problems and requirements. Highways need to have a longer lifespan, take less time to build and require less maintenance; they should be more sustainable, achieve greater noise reduction and be more competitive economically. The answer to all of this is in the plastic currently floating in the seas. And initiatives such as The Ocean Cleanup plan to recover this material as soon as possible.
The Ocean Cleanup came into being when the young Dutchman Boyan Slat went on holiday to Greece. He was shocked to witness the seascape of Odysseus’s adventures populated by huge quantities of plastic waste, floating on the surface. Once back to his daily routine, Slat started university but continued to meditate on what he’d observed in Greek waters. He began to carry out research and founded the social enterprise The Ocean Cleanup.
After much brain racking, Slat realised that he’d been taking the wrong approach to the problem. He was thinking about using boats to collect the plastic — an expensive and contaminating process — when, in fact, the ocean itself, with its winds and currents, could provide the answer. The seas could clean themselves if an adequate solution could be found to use the ocean’s power in their favour.
In India there have been plastic roads for the past 15 years.
His concept, developed in 2014, is as simple as it is elegant. Each part of the system fits together to create a v-shaped structure with 50km-long arms. A collection platform is located at the point where these arms meet, some 10,000 square metres in size. The angle of the two arms will help to funnel the plastic, normally floating between the surface and a depth of 3m, drawing it into the collection platform.
Powered by solar panels, the platform will separate the plastic accumulated thanks to the sea’s currents; every 45 days it will be emptied, with the plastic waste transported to land for recycling. Although it may seem like madness to heed a young engineer under 25 years old, an in-depth scientific study backs up his claims and estimates that one of his barriers could clean almost half of the oceans within 10 years.
In principle, the PlasticRoad team hope to launch a pilot project at the end of 2017. At first, it will be for a cycle track. If it works out well, Rotterdam could become a pioneer in the process of saving the oceans’ sea life. In India, meanwhile, there are plastic highways that have already been 15 years in operation. And according to The Guardian, they’re much better than asphalt roads.