Originally written for Broadsheet.
State Governments across Australia have either banned single-use plastic bags or announced plans to phase them out. Only NSW is yet to announce a plan. But there are still great numbers of them in circulation, stashed in people’s kitchen drawers and clogging landfills, and they take up to 1000 years to break down. But despite the ban on plastic bags, “soft plastics” (the category they fall into) will still be widely used. The category includes any plastic that can be scrunched into a ball or broken by hand.
Soft plastics are terrible for the environment and cause major headaches at recycling plants where they get caught in machinery designed to sort solid plastic. But recycling company Close the Loop has found a way to incorporate soft plastics into something we use everyday: roads. And it’s an Australian first.
The company has created an additive using plastic bags, recycled printer cartridges and glass bottles that can be used as a highly durable road sealant. When combined with reclaimed asphalt the result is a road made with more than 25 per cent recycled content according to Close the Loop’s General Manager Nerida Mortlock.
The additive has been used – in an Australian first – in 300 metres of road around Rayfield Avenue in the Melbourne suburb of Craigieburn. The 250 tonnes of asphalt used for the stretch of road was made with 200,000 plastic bags, 63,000 glass-bottle equivalents, toner from around 4500 recycled printer cartridges and 50 tonnes of reclaimed asphalt.
Although the idea began at Close the Loop, the project is a partnership between Hume City Council, Downer (a private-sector road infrastructure service) and RED Group.
The soft plastics used in the project were provided by RED Group as part of its REDcycle program, which works with major retailers to divert soft plastics from landfill.
“The soft plastics are … mixed in with the toner to create an additive. That additive then gets ingested into the asphalt plant – it’s a bitumen-replacement component. The recycled glass is then added to the road along with the recycled-asphalt component,” says Mortlock.
According to Mortlock the additive creates a more durable road and “improves the fatigue life by over 65 per cent”. She says the additive stops water entering and eroding the asphalt and helps it to withstand heavy traffic. She also claims it creates a more sustainable road than conventional asphalt does.
“You’re using recycled asphalt, so it’s actually lower-carbon product as well.”
While wear and tear will eventually take its toll on the road in Craigieburn, the asphalt and additive used to make it means it can be recycled over and over.
“They go along and scrape the top of [the road] and take it back to their site and that becomes the reclaimed asphalt pavement,” says Mortlock.
“These roads will keep being used again and again.”
Close the Loop relies on councils to adopt the product before it can be made and used widely. According to Mortlock, many councils are already aware of the road project and Close the Loop and Downer plan to “start going out to more councils … to be able to push this product out more over the next three to six months.”
As reported by the ABC, the development of the road additive used $40,000 of a $2.5 million state government fund intended to expand recycling research and development.
Jenni Downes, a research consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, says the road project is a good way to maximise the amount of waste being converted to useful products.
“What it’s doing is taking problem materials and finding really great solutions to reusing them in some way, so they don’t end up in landfill,” says Downes.
She says plastic-recovery programs such as REDcycle have been having trouble finding markets for these materials. There are not yet enough people and businesses “that want to buy their products compared to the amount of waste that they collect from the public.”
Downes thinks it’s the combination of reused plastics as well as asphalt that makes the technique particularly valuable.
“Given that we’re already producing these plastics, we’re already producing these glass bottles and printer cartridges, using them in place of virgin asphalt I’m certain would be better.”