Since its creation in 1907, plastic has become almost essential to our society. Its low cost and durability have made it an integral part of many of the modern advances we have seen in our society over the last century.
However, as you are most likely aware, plastic has now become a massive problem and poses a dangerous threat to our environment. From waves of plastic rubbish washing up onto beaches to islands of plastic floating around in our oceans, the amount of waste generated by single-use plastics is choking our wildlife, harming our health, and destroying our planet.
Scientists, engineers, activists, and policy groups around the world are trying to come up with solutions to reduce, or even eliminate, the amount of plastic that is getting sent to landfills and finding its way into our ecosystems. One company in the UK has developed a way to do this, while also fixing our roads at the same time.
Inspiration in India
The UK-based company, MacRebur, has found a way to use old plastic water bottles, plastic bags, and other single-use plastic items to create stronger, longer-lasting roads .
The company’s CEO, Tony McCartney, got the idea while he was working in Southern India. He was there with a charity that helps people whose job is to gather potentially reusable items from landfills and sell them to be repurposed. He learned that some of the plastic waste collected by the “pickers” was used to fill potholes in the country’s roads. The process worked like this:
- Collected plastic is placed into the pothole
- Diesel is poured all over the plastic
- The plastic is set on fire until it melts into the craters and creates a makeshift plastic pothole filler
McCartney thought that councils in the UK might not like the idea of lighting plastic on fire in the streets, so instead, he formed MacRebur with his two friends, Nick and Gordon. The three of them spent the next few years figuring out the best way to granulate waste plastics and add them into the making of an enhanced asphalt road. Today, the company has three waste plastic additives that can be mixed with traditional asphalt .
Making Roads Out Of Plastic
So how do you take a used plastic water bottle and turn it into a road? The first step, of course, is collecting the plastic waste that was originally destined for the landfill. These plastics are then sorted according to their differing polymer structures (ie- plastic bottles versus plastic bags) .
Next, the company breaks the plastic down into three different types of pellets – MR6, MR8, and MR10- each type varying based on their durability and intended use. For example, MR6 is best used in areas that see a lot of slow-moving, heavy vehicle traffic, like intersections and roundabouts, since it is resistant to road deformation. MR8 is best for parking lots, driveways, and local roads, and MR10 is best for highways where crack resistance is of utmost importance [3,4]. The pellets are then melted into bitumen. Bitumen is a thick, black residue that comes from petroleum distillation and is the glue that keeps asphalt together . According to McCartney, the pellets can be combined perfectly into any existing asphalt infrastructure.
What About Microplastics?
The main concern with plastic roads is whether or not microplastics will leach into our environment when it rains, but McCartney is adamant that this will not happen. This is because the plastic pellets are combined seamlessly with ordinary asphalt so that in the end, there are no actual plastics in the material [3,6].
“It’s important that our plastics all fully homogenize into the mix,” says the company’s frequently asked questions section. “There are therefore no plastics present in the end asphalt – just a polymer-modified bitumen. So no microplastics are in the end asphalt mix, and no leaching of any plastics can occur.” 
Solving Two Problems at Once
“We are wanting to solve two world problems. On one side we call it the waste plastic epidemic and on the other side the poor quality of roads that we have to drive on today,” explains McCartney .
Every tonne of this new asphalt contains around twenty thousand plastic water bottles or seventy thousand plastic bags, and the company claims that their roads are sixty percent stronger and can last up to three times as long as traditional roads . According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, there are four million miles of roads in the United States that need repair . If those roads were to be replaced using MacRebur asphalt, the amount of plastic rescued from landfills would be astronomical.
Global Support for MacRebur
MacRebur Plastic Roads Company has now provided pellets for roads not just in the UK, but also in the Gulf, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand . In 2018, the first plastic road was built in the United States at the University of California San Diego. MacRebur donated the pellets to the project after UC San Diego Construction Commodity Manager Gary Oshima reached out to him about a potential partnership. The company was delighted to work with the school, who, according to McCartney, shares similar values.
“Creating alternative uses for recycled plastic will be a crucial challenge that we all must resolve and maintaining over four million miles of roads in the United States will be an ever-growing problem,” said Oshima, of UC San Diego. In addition to using unwanted plastics that would have been destined for our landfills or our oceans, [this technology] also reduces fossil fuel usage and toxic off-gassing during manufacturing to protect the environment.” 
More Companies Are Making the Switch
There are other companies who have also been developing similar technologies, and these new plastic roads are seeing great success. In South Africa, Shisalanga Construction became the country’s first company to lay a partial-plastic road. The company has now paved more than four hundred meters of road, which has saved almost forty thousand plastic milk bottles from the landfill .
Los Angeles-based company TechniSoil Industrial has developed a similar process to MacRebur and is set to pave LA’s first plastic road. What makes TechniSoil unique is that this new technology will make it possible for the road itself to be 100 percent recycled.
“That’s always been the holy grail of the road construction market,” said the company’s president Sean Weaver. “Could you recycle 100% of the top surface of the road, grind it up, crush it, and put it right back down, and have that be as durable as the original hot mixed asphalt road?” 
The short answer? Yes.
The Problem Has Become the Solution
The biggest problem with plastic is the length of time it takes to break down in our environment. The technology that each of these companies is using, however, has made that its greatest strength.
“At the end of the day, plastic is a great product,” says McCartney. “It lasts for long, which is a problem if it’s a waste product, but not a problem if we want it to last.” 
MacRebur, Shisalanga, and TechniSoil are all examples of how innovation can be both environmentally sustainable and economically viable. As the technology continues to develop, hopefully, we will begin to see improved roads and less plastic lying in the ditches along with them.