This road leads to a better tomorrow
David Bonn made the relatively short journey along the West coast of Scotland to meet one of the founders of MacRebur, The Plastic Road Company, to discover the benefits associated with using their product as a replacement for bitumen while at the same time saving plastic from being sent to landfill sites
Nestled just off the M74 in Lockerbie, Scotland, is an unassuming factory delivering a better future for tomorrow. Here, three locals have established a business, MacRebur, which takes plastic recovered from waste recycling and turns it into a replacement for the bitumen we use on today’s roads.
It all started three and a half years ago with a discussion over a beer on what one of the founders had seen happen in India where locals were melting plastic bottles to fill potholes in the road. This was quickly followed up with a submission to a Richard Branson-supported competition from which, much to their surprise, they emerged as winners.
Spurred on, the team produced the plastic product which is used to reduce the amount of bitumen required when resurfacing a section of road. Cumbria Council in the North West of England had the vision to back the team and gave them the opportunity to prove their claims on a section of road that was giving the council some challenges – it needed to be resurfaced every three to six months due to its design and the nature of the vehicles using that section. Some two and a half years later and the road has not needed to be resurfaced.
To move the business forward, crowd-funding was sought. The message of using recycled plastic clearly resonated with the public, as the call was significantly over-subscribed. Around the same time, the BBC ran a feature on the business that led to international exposure with enquiries coming in from across the globe. It also highlighted a good idea to others and the team needed to ensure their product was legally protected with patents, etc. To meet the anticipated international growth in business, the model of leasing out the approach but retaining and selling their “glue” product has been chosen. Over the next 18 months the team expects to have 20 licensed plants of different sizes operating across the globe. It is expected that plants will soon be operating in Slovakia and San Diego in the US.
“Around 30% of the plastic that would otherwise go to landfill is converted into pellets and used to produce the bitumen replacement”
Around 30% of the plastic that would otherwise go to landfill is converted into pellets and used to produce the bitumen replacement. The process of separating suitable plastic for use as the bitumen is a key step in the process. Following trials using different percentages, the optimum amount of bitumen replaced by the plastic is 6%. This may not seem a high percentage but it means a lot of plastic isn’t going to landfill, energy used in its production is less than bitumen and the cost is lower.
What about the performance of the road surface when plastic is used to replace some of the bitumen? Well so far the evidence from Cumbria is positive but perhaps still subjective. The first section of road was laid in Bahrain in 2017, demonstrating that high temperatures don’t impact performance. Indeed, the product will operate between +88 and -22oC. With an impressive list of trial roads already laid in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Chile and the USA, most operating environments have been covered with no performance issues detected. High levels of rain water have no impact either. In summary, no difference has been identified between using bitumen-only versus using a plastic/bitumen combination.
Health and well-being issues are always a concern where plastic is involved. Tests have been undertaken to ensure that no harmful gases are released when it is being laid, thereby making it safe for the on-road operators. Tests have also shown that there is no release of harmful microplastics.
The ability to treat those sections of road containing plastic in the same way as conventionally constructed roads has been verified. Slot cutting can be done using the same equipment.
In-road electronic sensors are not impacted in any way. When a road section has to be re-laid the material removed containing plastic can be recycled in the normal way.
What the team has identified is there is a lack of a validated approach to prove whether the performance of this material is better or worse than any other approach. Also, different countries around the globe adopt a different approach to validating suitability of new products in this area. Perhaps there is a need for an international performance-based testing approach to be established?
What the team will have this summer is a set of empirical validated test results on road sections that have been operating for an acceptable period of time. They are very confident that these results will demonstrate the benefits in replacing bitumen with recycled plastic when laying a road surface.
“Perhaps supermarkets and other establishments who sell products in plastic bottles should be using this product in their car parks as a way of contributing to the country’s recycling targets”
Based on the expected results, it is hoped that the adoption rate for this new product will increase as it can only be good for the planet. It is recognised that those involved in changing specifications to enable this product to be used need to be assured that it will not have a detrimental performance or financial impact but in the interest of the planet the quicker we adopt this product and others like it the better for tomorrow. The thought of a small plant being set up at a city, town or county basis to recycle the products used in that area is an interesting one and worth exploring as part of the Circular Economy approach. Perhaps supermarkets and other establishments who sell products in plastic bottles should be using this product in their car parks as a way of contributing to the country’s recycling targets.
While this approach doesn’t remove the need to send some plastic to landfill, it does make a significant contribution to reducing the amount sent to landfill making it a contributing element to a country’s recycling targets that should be supported.
David Bonn is the founder of Bonn Business Solutions.
For further information contact Gordon Reid at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.macrebur.com.