What if you could take the plastic that’s polluting the oceans and turn it into roads? A Dutch company is now making this vision a reality.

To most of us, a good road is one you don’t have to think about: a clear highway without potholes and a piece of tarmac that just lies there and gets us places without any fuss. For Anne Koudstaal and Simon Jorritsma, however, roads are infinitely more fascinating.

Mention highway construction to them and their eyes light up with the revolutionary potential of a new type of smart road. Anne and Simon are Asphalt Advisors for KSM, one of the largest highway construction companies in the Netherlands. And yet, they’re convinced that future roads won’t be made of traditional blacktop, but plastic.

“Simon and I sat down in a room and thought about what the future might bring – what kind of problems governments are facing at the moment, what we want as traffic users, and the impact of climate change and flooding,” explains Anne. They came up with a simple, but far-reaching idea: If plastic from landfills or the oceans could be used to build lightweight, prefab roads, this would solve a variety of problems all at once.

Portrait Anne Koudstaal and Simon Jorritsma
Anne Koudstaal and Simon Jorritsma are convinced that future roads won’t be made of traditional blacktop, but plastic.

Traffic user needs meet eco-consciousness

“Sinking roads are a big problem in the Netherlands. That’s because the ground is so wet that roads get soaked, which makes them sink to such a degree that, in some cases, they have to be replaced after just three to four years.”

Plastic has a great advantage: It’s not only impermeable to water, but it’s also much lighter than asphalt. Plastic roads could be designed with integrated storm drains – a system that collects water during heavy downpours to release it later in a controlled fashion.

Prefabricated roads would be quick to build, reducing the time we spend in traffic jams. And a plastic road could go 50-100 years without maintenance. Compare that to conventional roads, which need to be replaced three times over every fifty years, on average.

A prototype is being built right now

There are challenges. At the moment, KSM are finalizing a partnership to build an initial, real-world prototype. “We want to start out small with a bicycle path, then build bigger and bigger roads using the intelligence we gather from our laboratory tests and pilot projects.”

Recycled plastic would have to be processed or separated to ensure minimum quality. It would require some kind of block to shield it from UV-radiation. And the material would need to be engineered to be flame-retardant and low-noise. Still, Anne and Simon are optimistic that all of these challenges can be met.

“Once the base material is in place,” they say, “the possibilities of the plastic road are endless.” Integrated solar cells could make the surface self-sufficient or even energy-generating. Sensors could deliver real-time information on traffic flow, temperature, snow, and ice, thus enhancing safety and dramatically reducing congestion.

Finally, there’s the potentially huge environmental benefit of re-using plastic, i. e. non-biodegradable waste that currently pollutes the oceans or languishes in landfills only to be burnt in the end.

Cross-section of the plastic road: The prefabricated roads could be placed together.
Cross-section of the plastic road: The prefabricated roads could be placed together.

More high-tech road ideas

KWS are not the only ones considering the roads of the future. Designer Daan Rosegaarde, also from the Netherlands, uses light to make roads smart. His temperature-sensitive paint, for example, could be used to display symbols that warn drivers of upcoming icy conditions.

A road equipped with sensors would know when it is being used and activate lights on demand, ensuring that highways aren’t wastefully lit when there’s no-one around. Not only that: A band of light could travel ahead of vehicles at the given speed limit. Drive too fast and you will eventually catch up with the end of the band – and run out of illuminated road.

For now, however, the answer might lie in countless small improvements. FEHRL – the Forum of European National Highway Research Laboratories – is working to turn Europe’s 70,000 km highway network into roads that are adaptable, automated, and climate resistant. In the very near future, we could see concrete that captures CO2 and NOx emissions and that is self-repairing, more durable, and lower-noise.

Future roads will consist of prefab segments and capture solar energy (in fact, Dutch research lab TNO has already made the “SolaRoad” a reality). They will also be able to re-charge electric vehicles and help manage traffic flow with a plethora of real-time data. Whichever type of road we’ll see in the future, one thing is certain: Future highways will be just as high-tech as the cars that use them.

Plastic roads graphics
Plastic has a great advantage: It’s not only impermeable to water, but it’s also much lighter than asphalt.

For more information on SolaRoad, visit the website.

All images incl. header image: KWS Infra