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By Paul A. Eisenstein

That plastic soft drink bottle you’ve stuck into your car’s cupholder as you race down the road could see new life as part of the road itself. At least, that’s the idea of a small company in The Netherlands that wants to replace conventional asphalt and concrete with prefabricated roads made out of recycled plastic.

The venture is being taken seriously by the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which is considering using the material in a pilot “street lab” project to see whether it can hold up to the daily grind of traffic. Dubbed PlasticRoad, the materials could last as much as three times longer than conventional pavement and withstand temperatures ranging from -40 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit.

The PlasticRoad design features a 'hollow' space that can be used for cables, pipes and rainwater.VolkerWessels

The concept, developed by KWS Infra, part of a Dutch construction and engineering company, claims the PlasticRoad would be particularly “ideal for poorer soil” – such as is often found in the Netherlands – which can quickly cause conventional pavement to break up. The material would also have environmental benefits, KWS Infra claims, including eliminating the roadside emissions caused by laying down new asphalt.

Proponents also note that the roads could be produced out of a variety of different forms of plastic waste. That could include such things as recycled water and soft drink bottles, as well as the enormous amount of plastic swirling around in the oceans.

Marine debris and plastic pollution spread across Haiti's coastline.Timothy Townsend

The concept creates Lego-like prefabricated segments that would be hauled to a construction site and assembled relatively quickly compared to current road construction methods. That also could make it easier to handle future repairs or changes to a road’s layout by simply snapping out old segments and replacing them with new ones.

Each segment is actually hollow, providing a path for wires, pipes and drainage to be channeled through it. However, that does raise concerns about how to handle that infrastructure when repairing or replacing blocks later on.

Another question is how the road surface will compare with conventional pavement from a grip standpoint. Will tires have as much traction on plastic as they do on concrete or asphalt, and how will that change in adverse weather conditions?

Researchers have been looking at a lot of alternative means to produce roads in recent years.

Federal rules in the U.S. have helped clean up the mountains of old tires that traditionally piled up in landfills and lots, shredding them to a fine powder that is then added to asphalt.

And India already uses a process that transforms plastic waste into a new polymer that can similarly be turned into asphalt. It reportedly results in stronger road surfaces.

Meanwhile, a small U.S. start-up based in rural Idaho has been tinkering with a way to replace conventional roads with hexagonal blocks of glass-encased solar cells, which it says could generate more than three times the electricity that the U.S. uses. Entrepreneurs Julie and Scott Brusaw have already paved a driveway with the material and have generated several million dollars in federal grants and crowdsourced funding to test the technology.

Dutch firm KWS Infra says it could be at least three years before it can demonstrate its PlasticRoad technology in a major project. The solar road program is likewise years away from reality.

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