From waste to wonder: The road made entirely of recycled plastic

Sep 05, 2019 by Kelly Barnett

The Netherlands' leading road builder, KWS, wanted to solve a significant problem: How do we build more sustainable roads? Two of the team, Anne Koudstaal and Simon Jorritsma, suggested using plastic. KWS decided to take a step toward making their vision a reality and turned to Wavin to pursue this challenge together.

Marcel Jager has been a project manager at Wavin for more than 12 years. He has always been passionate about finding simple solutions to complicated problems and thought that building a plastic road could be a perfect opportunity to do that.

The Story of the Recycled Plastic Road

You might think it would be a daunting task to completely reinvent a transportation method. 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 towards 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 they could make it work, it would be a huge step forward in advancing urban development while reducing enviromental harm.

“Innovation is our cornerstone. Sustainability is at the core of our company. 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, Wavin Product Manager, PlasticRoad

“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 plastic road 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 Marcel’s small but talented team, including engineers Tom Lansink and Twan Boshove, had a working model.

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

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

In 2018, Wavin’s home town of Zwolle, in the Netherlands, became the first official site in the world to have a truly plastic road. A 30 meter bike path opened to the public on September 11, 2018, amid much fanfare and press attention. The road includes sensors to provide information for further development, space for services to run underneath, and its own stormwater management system. The road is quick to install and made of materials that are cheaper than traditional road-building materials. It comes in prefab sections, it is easy to replace, resulting in no potholes.

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

“Now that the project has progressed, we see a company-wide faith in the product. All three PlasticRoad partners now embrace its potential. 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? More bike paths, pedestrian areas and car parks, and in the future ... yes, potentially urban highways made of plastic. This is a journey, and Marcel’s team is building a road for it. The destination is a world where there is no such thing as single-use plastic.