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Plastics are key to making Biden’s push for infrastructure possible

Plastics are vital to creating durable and sustainable infrastructure by building stronger roads and piping systems at a lower cost while keeping more discarded plastic inside the economy.

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With the Biden Administration’s announcement of the Build Back Better infrastructure plan, a focus on modern and sustainable infrastructure development is set to increase. The plan is heavily focused on general infrastructure, and as a material that can improve sustainability, plastics will be vital for any serious plan to improve roads and highway drainage systems as well as ensuring long-term durability.

For decades, plastics have been used to improve infrastructure, particularly in the construction industry, due to the material’s versatility. Plastics are cheaper, lighter, recyclable, more durable, and consume less energy than steel and concrete alternatives, making them vital to the industry. Plastics are already being used worldwide to create stronger pavement for highways, make drainage systems more effective, and make public walkways and pathways more durable.

Plastics Build Better Roads

While adding plastics to traditional asphalt paving materials is newer to infrastructure development in the United States, India has had wide success paving with discarded plastic for over two decades. Mixing shredded and melted plastic bags, bottles, and food wrappers to the asphalt base significantly improves the overall quality of public streets and roads – making them more resistant to water penetration and able to better handle temperature variations.

Adding plastics to the base asphalt mixture is also cheaper than using traditional asphalt materials. By reducing overall costs, plastics  can create endless opportunities for road paving in developing countries, like India where only about 50% of roads are paved. According to Dr. Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a professor of chemistry at the Thiagarajar College of Engineering in India, plastics reduce the cost of paving roads by as much as 15%, while also making roads 60% stronger than traditional ones.

In addition to higher durability and lower cost, adding plastics to asphalt helps keep discarded plastic out of landfills and the environment and inside our economy. According to the Ocean Recovery Alliance, road construction that incorporates plastics could absorb thousands of tons of plastic waste in the United States per year if this innovative technique is used on a national scale. Recently, PLASTICs and LyondellBasell collaborated on a project to pave the Cincinnati Technology Center parking lot with the equivalent of 71,000 plastic retail bags. Likewise, the California Department of Transportation and the University of California at San Diego is testing a similar process.

MacRebur, a UK company that paved the first road in the United States using asphalt mixed with plastics, claims that every ten tons of asphalt it produces uses over 71,000 plastic bottles or 435,500 plastic bags that would otherwise be landfilled. Paving with plastic is just one solution that can help carry out Biden’s infrastructure plan more effectively and more affordably, while also helping solve the plastic waste problem.

Recycled Plastics Improve Drainage Capabilities and Walkways

Plastics are also revolutionizing industrial drainage systems while helping to solve plastic waste challenges due to the nature of ultra-strong polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Polyethylene is a durable plastic material that can be made out of both recycled and virgin plastic materials and is used to make piping. It is more durable than alternative materials, like concrete or metal, that break down over time and can reduce effectiveness of infrastructure. Additionally, plastic piping takes less energy to produce and is lighter, making it easier and cheaper to transport.

Advanced Drainage Systems, a company that uses recycled polyethylene plastics, like those used to make shampoo and medicine bottles, to build industrial drainage systems on or near highways to prevent erosion, says that it diverts 400 million pounds of plastic from landfills annually. The plastic materials used to build this infrastructure is also more durable than traditional concrete materials used. According to the president and CEO of the company, the drainage systems can last up to 60 years due to the durability of recycled plastics.

Polyethylene is also being recycled in Kenya to make “concrete” bricks for houses and pathways. In 2017, Nzambi Matee opened a plastics recycling factory called Gjenge Makers that melts down plastics into bricks that are five to seven times stronger than their concrete equivalent. Solutions like these that reduce discarded plastic waste are the key to solving plastic waste while also making infrastructure more durable.

Plastics are key to ensuring sustainable infrastructure solutions

Plastics contribute to better infrastructure and a stronger strong circular economy and are key to solving infrastructure dilemmas, both in the U.S. and abroad. Innovative solutions keep plastics out of the environment and in the economy and will help unlock a more sustainable future in line with Biden’s infrastructure plan.

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