by Gregory Simpson

Road to the future?

“They want to try to see if it’s possible to use their garbage, collected in their municipality, in the roads they are going to lay – that is the ambition”

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The road of the future may look nothing like today’s offerings. Researchers in Holland are cracking the code on a revolutionary plastic road, which may be headed to Africa in the future. We have the exclusive.

Greenhouse gases aren’t just generated by cars travelling over roads — asphalt roads themselves aren’t so great for the environment. The plastic road concept consists of prefabricated sections of roadway made out of recycled plastic, which snap together like Lego. Hollow spaces in roads carry infrastructure like electric or fiber-optic wire.

Installing a plastic road is much simpler than laying asphalt, mostly because the road surface is fabricated offsite. Workers dig a road bed and line it with sand or aggregate, then lay down the road in sections 5 meters long and 2.5 meters wide. Repair is equally straightforward — a damaged section of road can be replaced in minutes, according to reports.

Although asphalt is recycled at a high rate, it’s a petroleum-based material, and its production can hardly be described as green — the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) estimates that an average asphalt plant emits up to 41 000 pounds of carbon monoxide and up to 31 000 pounds of particulate matter per year, not including the impact of extracting crushed rock. Asphalt is also less durable than you might think — the top layer of an asphalt road must, at best, be replaced every 20 years.

The find out more, Gregory Simpson, went global and got hold of the inventors/engineers, all the way in sunny Holland — Anne

Can you tell me a bit about your background in engineering and something about the inspiration behind the Plastic Road Project?

Anne Koudstaal: I’m a civil engineer, I have studied water management. Simon and I actually brainstormed what the future is going to bring us and it’s all kinds of problems. We tried to find a solution for every problem and that’s how the plastic road was born.

Simon Jorritsma: My background is interfacing management, and I’m doing research on sustainability within KWS Infra. I’m looking at sustainable products, ways of getting asphalt more durable – in short, that’s my background.

What’s some of the design that goes into to making plastic roads and some of the environmental savings?

Anne Koudstaal: We were looking at the current issues we face, like flooding of urban areas, cable and piping in the Netherlands. The ground is full of cables and pipes, you can’t put a shovel in the ground anymore or you’ll hit a cable or a pipe. We also have a lot of sediment, which causes the ground to sink in the Netherlands, so we have to find lightweight solutions. We also see a big problem with plastics, and of course the plastic waste. We put all those issues on a big mountain and looked at what kind of design is able to face all those problems or solve all those problems and that’s how the plastic road was born.

There’s been a lot of comparison with Lego; did you take some inspiration from that?

Anne Koudstaal: Yes a little bit, it’s like pre-fab, we make it in a factory and then we transport it to the location where we have to install it. If you make it like Lego in a factory you can make sure the quality is equal to all the products – so that it installs quickly and easily.

Are these roads able to handle weather changes, storms, flooding and hurricanes better than traditional roads, even if you have all the electronics under the road?

Anne Koudstaal: Yes, that’s the idea, but we don’t know if it’s going to be all the electronics. The specific road has a space and it can be used for electric cables, but we have to see what kind of electric cables can be put in.

How many years away are you from this becoming public, could you predict?

Anne Koudstaal: Well we hope to have our first pilots outside at the end of next year, and from there we have to develop a plastic road for public use.

The lifespan, a traditional road has to be replaced up to 20 years, how long will these plastic roads last?

Anne Koudstaal: Well that’s a thing we have to do some research on, but we expect it will be two to three times longer than traditional asphalt; it would depend on the use of the road.

And the benefit when it comes to repair and maintenance?

Anne Koudstaal: Well it’s pre-fabricated so when one element is damaged it can be replaced very quickly. We think it’s going to take just 10% of the fraction of the time it takes to construct a traditional road.

And what would this mean for logistics in 5, 10, 20 years time down the line if this really takes off?

Anne Koudstaal: For transport we calculated that when the concept is a reality it’s going to mean that 85% less transport is needed for plastic road elements, when compared to a traditional asphalt road.

And recycling is obviously a massive part of this – how do you increase your recycling to make this effective?

Well in Holland we recycle a fair amount of plastics, all households separate their plastic and it will be collected, separated and collected by municipalities and then recycled.

What sort of reaction have you got from investment companies and government to this proposal?

Anne Koudstaal: Very positive reactions from all over the world and especially from municipalities, because they really like the idea and want to try to see if it’s possible to use their garbage, collected in their municipality, in the roads they are going to lay – that is the ambition.

The sky is the limit, so what will that mean for the planet in terms of reduction in waste?

Simon Jorritsma: If we can use total mixed waste and we don’t have to use new materials then plastic waste is getting an enormous boost. People like to collect because they can get some money for it. That’s the biggest case. At the moment most of the plastic waste is used for energy and it has a rather low value. If we can put it in plastic roads, or use it for other purposes plastic waste will become more valuable, particularly because of the big amounts we have to use.

Would you say that there should be legislation that every piece of plastic has some kind of recycling value?

Simon Jorritsma: Yes.

We’re very far behind in South Africa in the recycling stakes and particularly in recycled tyres – is there room for that in alternative roads?

Anne Koudstaal: We haven’t looked at that yet, our first focus is to do some research on the construction and the use of different kinds of waste plastic. We have to optimise the amount of waste plastic in plastic roads and after that we can look at other resources. Maybe if there are other possibilities of use for the plastic road then maybe we can use lower quality waste material. For the recycling of our roads, it has to be a high quality because it has to carry a car over it.

Absolutely, and in terms of trucking is there a weight restriction on how much weight these roads can take?

Anne Koudstaal: We now calculate with an axle load of 15 000 kilos, 15 tons.

The really big trucks wouldn’t be able to use the roads at the moment?

Anne Koudstaal: That’s true, we now focus on urban areas and you have mostly cars and smaller trucks driving over it and they are about 15 tons, like a fire truck, that kind of vehicle.

And would it be possible to make it thicker and more durable for a highway application?

Anne Koudstaal: Yes, that’s a possibility.

And in terms of finance, presumably it’s cheaper than asphalt?

Anne Koudstaal: We think so, it can save water over a sewage system, so you don’t have to have separate rainwater sewage. In the Netherlands we have a lot of damage to cables and pipes during infra-works, which means everybody has to be out of electricity or gas or water and costs are increased. When the pipes are in the plastic road this will be less. Regarding maintenance there will be less traffic hindrance because replacements are much quicker, and the cars don’t have to stand in the traffic.

If there is a flood what happens to the road, does it rise or how does it work?

Anne Koudstaal: The idea is when there’s a lot of rain the plastic road has a gutter system so the water is going into the hollow space. The hollow space can be totally filled and the sides and underneath the plastic roads act like an infiltration unit, so the water can infiltrate into the ground.

Absolutely and then attaching that to a grey water system so you can capture the water from the roads?

Simon Jorritsma: We are looking at a different version of the plastic road, which can store the water so that you can use it for different purposes like irrigation of lands and that kind of stuff.

And have you had much interest from Africa, because I’m sure this could solve a lot of problems?

Simon Jorritsma: We’ve had some reaction from Africa, different countries, but also from South Africa.

And in terms of manufacturing, is this something you could take around the world and manufacture wherever you wanted to?

Simon Jorritsma: We hope so, but we first have to find a production facility, there isn’t one existing at the moment.

Anne Koudstaal: And before we can finance a production facility we have to complete the designing of the plastic road – the production facility will be a huge investment.

Presumably you have to map the entire city before you start building the roads?

Anne Koudstaal: No, it’s more like the elements have to be just right because you have to make a mould and every adjustment you want to make to the plastic roads means you have to create a new mould.

So how many different moulds would you need?

Anne Koudstaal: We have to have something like three or four; you also have to have different kinds of curves and that kind of stuff.

Absolutely, a lot goes into it. In terms of job creation there must be a job creation benefit if this really takes off?

Anne Koudstaal: Well we haven’t looked at job creation but that will be a factor, especially in the recycling business – there could be a huge creation of jobs. It’s an extra benefit, we haven’t thought about that yet.

In terms of recycling in Europe what’s the biggest lesson Africa can learn from that, where there’s not much recycling happening at all?

Anne Koudstaal: The thing that Africa can learn is not to spill the plastic into the environment because that’s the biggest issue we have to face. The Netherlands was also a big polluter of plastic in the rivers, but since we started to recycle and use the material in other products we see a better collection of waste, all kinds of waste, and that’s a big issue for The Netherlands. And what Africa can learn is that waste and particularly plastic waste has a value, you have to see it like a resource not as waste, yes, that’s the most important thing.

Theft is a big problem in Africa, how secure are these roads from somebody trying to steal the road or the piping underneath the road?

Anne Koudstaal: That’s a thing, you can steal the roads, they are 4 000 kilo’s, if you want to take it on your back it’s quite heavy.

If you steal some of the elements what are you going to do with it?

Holland is a leader in sustainable design, what is the reason for that?

Anne Koudstaal: We don’t have natural resources so we have to find solutions to make it cheaper, to do it with products that are already being used. That’s one of the main reasons we are quite far ahead.

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