From Waste to Wonder: The Road Made Entirely of Recycled Plastic

Jan 04, 2021 by Kelly Barnett

What does infrastructure look like in the future? How can we build more sustainable roads? How do we solve climate challenges, such as stormwater drainage? Two men from the Netherlands, Anne Koudstaal and Simon Jorritsma, suggested using plastic, and in 2013 they drew the first concept for a road made of recycled plastic.

This idea led to what is now PlasticRoad: an independent company ready for its commercial launch and official market introduction in 2021, from which point onward it will sell industrially manufactured PlasticRoads. Wavin (part of Orbia) and VolkerWessels (one of the largest construction firms in and outside the Netherlands) are company shareholders as of 2020.

The Story of the Recycled Plastic Road

It all started at the Netherlands' leading road builder, KWS (part of VolkerWessels), where Anne and Simon were employed. In 2015, KWS decided to take a step toward making their vision a reality. In 2016, Wavin and Total joined in the development of what is now the PlasticRoad.

Marcel Jager has been part of Wavin for more than 14 years, first as Project Manager and currently as Discovery Manager. Since 2020 he has also been part of the PlasticRoad management team in the role of Engineering Manager, together with Anne Koudstaal and Eric Kievit. Marcel has always been passionate about finding simple solutions to complicated problems, and he thought that building a PlasticRoad could be a perfect opportunity to do that. 

You might think it would be a daunting task to completely reinvent an infrastructure solution. But when he first looked at the project, Marcel got pretty excited. Just think about it—what if they could turn single-use plastic into something so practical, so valuable, so sustainable and so easy to install that it could be a significant step toward making cities more livable and lovable while leveraging an existing resource: recycled plastic. 

It wouldn’t be easy, Marcel knew. It was by far the most challenging concept he and his development team had faced in a long time. He knew that enormous problems lay ahead, but if the PlasticRoad team could make it work, then it would be a huge step forward in advancing urban development while reducing environmental harm. 

“Innovation is our cornerstone. Sustainability is at the core of both the PlasticRoad company and our shareholders Wavin and VolkerWessels. So being part of a project to create a road with no asphalt, no concrete, just post-consumer plastic waste was not just a challenge. It was probably the most exciting project of my career.”

- Marcel Jager, Engineering Manager at PlasticRoad and Wavin Discovery Manager

“The Journey of a Thousand Miles Starts with a Single Step”

So said Chinese Philosopher Lao-Tze. The first step along the journey to a PlasticRoad was to create a prototype. That was no simple task; there were many bumps along this particular road. But, after a lot of trial and error and a joint effort of Wavin, KWS and other PlasticRoad partners, they arrived at the first working model. Among those involved were Marcel’s Wavin team members and engineers Tom Lansink and Twan Boshove. Both Tom and Twan are now officially part of the PlasticRoad engineering team.

The next step was to learn how to take single-use plastic and turn it into something that was strong enough to cope with constant traffic. PlasticRoad holds that trade secret confidential, and suffice to say, it was not an easy task, but, yet again, Marcel and the PlasticRoad team kept going until they had the perfect plastic. 

Finally, in 2016, the road was ready for a first internal trial. Quietly, without fanfare, the PlasticRoad team installed a test road at a KWS company location. Every day for over a year, cars and small trucks drove over that trial plastic road without any problems. 

In 2018, Wavin’s home town of Zwolle, in the province of Overijssel in the Netherlands, became the first official site in the world to have a truly PlasticRoad. A 30 meter bike path pilot opened to the public on September 11, 2018, amid much fanfare and attention. The hollow part of the PlasticRoad includes sensors to provide information for further development, space for services to run underneath and its own stormwater storage and drainage system. The lightweight road is quick to install and made of materials that are cheaper than traditional road-building materials. It comes in prefab sections, is easy to replace and can completely be recycled into new PlasticRoad elements, resulting in a circular and climate-proof infrastructure solution. 

The first road attracted significant press attention and generated a number of inquiries from companies and governmental organizations looking to install one, and it is still in constant use by locals. The second pilot was installed in late 2018 in Giethoorn, also in the Netherlands, with the aim to test it in weak soil conditions. 

“Now that the project has progressed and we are readying ourselves for our official market launch in 2021, we see a company-wide faith in the product with both shareholders Wavin and VolkerWessels. The potential of the PlasticRoad is fully embraced. That said, innovation and moving into something that is totally new is always a bit scary; we’re developing while the whole world is watching. It’s humbling, to say the least.”

- Marcel Jager

What is the next step for the PlasticRoad? Starting in the first quarter of 2021, industrial production of the commercial PlasticRoad product will be a reality, based out of its own site in Hardenberg.

Beyond that, more bike paths, pedestrian areas and car parks, and in the future ... yes, potentially urban highways made of plastic. This is a journey, and the PlasticRoad team, including Marcel, Twan and Tom are building a road for it.

The destination is a world where there is no such thing as single-use plastic. 

For more information about PlasticRoad, please visit their website, www.plasticroad.com.

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