California Paves Highway with Completely Recycled Materials

Image: Pixaby

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

A 1000-foot stretch highway in Oroville, CA was recently repaved with recycled plastic and asphalt—the first time a state department has paved a road with 100% recycled materials. This durable recycled material can combat potholes, last two to three times longer than asphalt roads, and reuse about 150,000 single-use plastic bottles per mile. 

Why this Matters: If this highway is durable, The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) will begin to use completely recycled material to pave roads throughout the state. This highway could serve as a model for other highways across the country, creating a more sustainable model for recycling domestically. At a time when US oil companies are lobbying to dump plastic waste in Africa as our domestic recycling industry is struggling, finding ways to increase the demand for recycled plastic is immensely important as over 90% of the plastic we use isn’t recycled.

A New Way to Pave: Road paving typically produces a massive amount of waste. Repaving a mile of a single-lane road, even using recycled asphalt, uses 42 truckloads of new material and produces 42 tons of waste. California already uses recycled asphalt for its roads, but the process relies on the petroleum industry— these roads require bitumen, a black sludge produced by oil refining.

Instead, this new plastic-asphalt can be formulated out of only recycled material. It’s synthesized out of 3 inches of old pavement and a liquid plastic polymer binder made up of recycled PET plastic, the plastic typically used in plastic bottles. Then the plastic-asphalt can be placed on the road.

Not only does this new paving process utilize recycled materials, but it also creates a road that can last two or three times as long as traditional asphalt according to tests. This allows CalTrans to use less building material and send fewer trucks to its paving sites, cutting back greenhouse gas emissions.

Los Angeles has already begun a pilot to use this type of pavement and if the road in Oroville performs well it could become a model for other cities within California and across the nation to emulate. 


Will this Solve California’s Plastic Pollution Crisis?

Californians used over 12 billion single-use plastic bottles in 2017, and millions of pounds of plastic litter the state’s highways, landfills, and oceans. Paving recycled plastic-asphalt roads is one of many initiatives California has implemented to curb plastic pollution. The most famous example is California’s “Bottle Bill” — a bill which allowed roughly 80% of the state’s eligible materials to be recycled. 

Because of this, some skeptics think that California doesn’t need another way to recycle PET (#1)  plastic, which is already the most commonly recycled. “Instead, an asphalt process that used other types of plastics  — like #3, #4 or #5, which have very low rates of recycling — would be a better fit,” Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, told Enterprise-Record.

But as 284 plastic recycling centers in the state shuttered last year, and a new plastic recycling bill failed to get ratified, paving roads with recycled plastic could be an important step in making our use of plastic more circular overall. 


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