It’s unclear whether this solution helps the environment — or that infrastructure infused with used plastic is structurally sound.
Last month, the American Chemistry Council, a petrochemical industry trade group, sent out a newsletter highlighting a major new report on what it presented as a promising solution to the plastic pollution crisis: using “recycled” plastic in construction materials. At first blush, it might seem like a pretty good idea — shred discarded plastic into tiny pieces and you can reprocess it into everything from roads and bridges to railroad ties. Many test projects have been completed in recent years, with proponents touting them as a convenient way to divert plastic waste from landfills while also making infrastructure lighter, more rot-resistant, or, ostensibly, more durable.
“As our nation sets about rebuilding our infrastructure and restoring our resilience, plastic will play an outsized role,” the American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a petrochemical industry trade group, says on one of its websites.
But independent experts tell a much more complicated story, suggesting that most applications involving plastic waste in infrastructure are not ready for prime time. In recent years, several reports and literature reviews have highlighted the unknown health and environmental impacts of repurposing plastic into construction materials. They’ve also warned that post-consumer plastic isn’t desirable for use in many types of infrastructure — and that diverting plastic into construction is unlikely to make much of a dent in the massive tide of plastic waste that the developed world produces. To the contrary, adding used plastic to construction materials could even incentivize more plastic production.
Take a closer look at the 407-page National Academies of Sciences report the ACC highlighted in its newsletter, for example, and you’ll find that it said there has been virtually “no significant research” in the United States to back claims about the benefits of using plastic in roads. Other construction applications face “high material and installation costs,” as well as “uncertainties about long-term performance and environmental impact…”