Nearly 70,000 bridges in America are "structurally deficient." Can recycled plastic help fix that problem? Maybe.
Welsh company Vertech recently led the construction of Europe’s first 100 percent recycled plastic bridge. The roughly 90-foot bridge, which spans the River Tweed at Easter Dawyck in Peeblesshire, Scotland, was made out of 50 tons of waste plastic from end-of-life vehicle recycling and everyday plastic bottles.
The components of the bridge were constructed off-site, and then assembled in only four days, despite what Vertech describes as "challenging weather conditions." Remarkably, the entire manufacturing and assembly process took just two weeks. And the completed bridge won’t rust and doesn’t need regular maintenance. Even better, it’s 100 percent recyclable itself.
Vertech worked with engineers from Rutgers and Cardiff Universities, along with outside design and construction companies, to complete the project. The Welsh Assembly Government also provided support.
This kind of "thermoplastic" has been used for bridges in the past. In 2009, the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg had a recycled-plastic bridge constructed (Rutgers engineers were involved with that project as well). But Vertech is betting that recent advances in materials science will make thermoplastic strong and inexpensive enough for use beyond the military. The company plans to provide thermoplastic materials as an alternative to timber, fiberboard, and other construction materials—possibly even steel and concrete.
In a press release, Vertech’s cofounder and CEO, William Mainwaring, said, "We shouldn’t be sending so much of the UK’s waste plastic to landfill nor should we be shipping it to China. With this unique technology we can now recycle it ourselves to produce increasingly sought after high quality and sustainable construction materials for the European market." The company plans to open a manufacturing facility for this thermoplastic in 2012.
Whether recycled plastic can help address America’s infrastructure problems remains to be seen. So far, the bridges made from thermoplastics have been small ones. But Vertech’s progress is an encouraging sign. We certainly have plenty of plastic trash.