On Tuesday, the European Commission allocated nearly $36 million to support the development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure across the Netherlands. The move reflects the country’s momentum towards a transportation revolution — one that is notably not limited to vehicles. The E.C. grant comes a few weeks after the latest innovation in the field was unveiled on July 10 by Dutch construction firm VolkerWessels: the PlasticRoad.
Made of recycled plastic, the road structure is lightweight and can handle temperatures as low as -40˚F and as high as 176˚F “with ease.” It is also much more resistant to chemical corrosion than asphalt, and is “almost impervious to conditions such as the weather and weeds.” The firm says that the roads would be virtually maintenance-free, with a lifetime expectancy of at least fifty years, or three times as long as asphalt roads. (And there is no shortage of source material — VolkerWessels estimates that eight billion kilograms of plastic is currently floating around in the oceans, and over 55% of all plastic waste is still being incinerated.)
Furthermore, PlasticRoad has a hollow space inside in which cables and pipes can be run and rainwater can drain through. Additional innovations can be incorporated, such as solar heated roads, light poles, and traffic loop sensors.
However, real-world trials of the PlasticRoad are still needed. VolkerWessels is researching the best way to produce the PlasticRoad, whose prefabricated modules will be connected on-site. (This will reduce construction time to weeks rather than months, at uniform high-quality.) “As soon as the idea is proved to be feasible, we can quickly arrange a pilot,” which “will start as soon as possible,” the firm said. Encouragingly, the city of Rotterdam, which boasts a strong sustainability policy and a “street lab” to test innovations like this, has already volunteered to host trials of the PlasticRoad. The firm says the first pilot will be a bicycle path, where the consequences of anything going wrong are much lower thanks to the absence of vehicles.
But PlasticRoad still has several unresolved engineering issues. Regarding possible slipperiness, the firm stated “First, we will investigate whether we can make the plastic itself skid resistant. If this isn’t possible, we could also apply sand or crushed stone to the surface of the PlasticRoad (by pressing or printing), thus providing the required roughness.” And while VolkerWessels doesn’t expect major problems from plastic particles potentially being worn off and contaminating the environment, it said “A wear layer or special coating should be able to prevent this. Research will have to show how durable the material is and what the consequences are. We’re looking for the most sustainable option.”
Later on, if the PlasticRoad proves to be successful in accommodating vehicles, and the firm attracts enough investment to scale up its deployment, this innovation will also help the country reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. On June 24, a Dutch court ordered that the Netherlands reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020 from benchmark 1990 levels. The country had been on track to meet the government’s earlier goal of a 17% reduction by 2020, but now it needs to find new solutions quickly.
Asphalt is responsible for 1.6 million tons of CO2 emissions a year globally — 2% of all road transport emissions– and incinerating plastic emits greenhouse gases as well. But both can be avoided with the PlasticRoad. Perhaps a future where electric vehicles are driven over recycled plastic roads isn’t be so far-fetched after all.