In late May, a bridge on Washington State’s Interstate 5 collapsed after a trucker carrying drilling equipment accidentally bumped his load against the bridge’s steel framework. The bridge, which runs over the Skagit River, suddenly broke apart, sending two vehicles careening into the water (no one was seriously injured). This is not part of a trend in bridge collapses, but the I-5 bridge is emblematic of a larger problem in the U.S.: 68,842 bridges—11% of all bridges in the country—are structurally deficient, which means they need heavy maintenance, rehabilitation, or should be replaced altogether.
Axion is banking on the idea that building recycled plastic bridges could be part of the solution. The company’s products are featured in the Onion Ditch Bridge, a new bridge in Logan County, Ohio, that’s made entirely from recycled materials. It’s a small structure, but at 24.6 feet, the Onion Ditch is the longest bridge made from 100% recycled products in the country.
Axion’s journey into recycled plastic products began in the late 1980s when Dr. Thomas Nosker, a member of the company’s advisory board and professor at Rutgers University, was a graduate student at Rutgers. The school was the recipient of a government grant to develop recycling systems, which were sorely needed with the growth of plastic water bottles. The researchers working on the project were focused mainly on PET plastic (the category that plastic bottles fall into), but left No. 2 plastics (like milk jugs, detergent bottles, and shampoo bottles) to rot in landfills.
Nosker started experimenting and eventually came up with a composite polymer made out of two types of plastic—the aforementioned high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic—commonly found with the number "2" recycling symbol—and polystyrene plastics, commonly found in auto industry materials (i.e. bumpers and dashboards). Nosker’s polymer is used today in Axion’s products, which are found in railroad ties and, of course, bridges.
Axion’s bridge product is called Struxure. It’s made up of 80% No. 2 plastic and 20% polystyrene, and it’s nearly immune to the elements—it doesn’t rot, absorb moisture, splinter, or rust. Insects and marine parasites can’t infest bridges made with the stuff. It even resists graffiti. "It doesn’t crack, and sunlight doesn’t bother it," says Steven Silverman, the CEO of Axion.
The first vehicular bridge made with Struxure was built in the early 1990s as a Missouri military base. Another early Struxure bridge was constructed in New Jersey’s Wharton State Forest. "We’ve never had to replace a part, nothing cracked, and nothing has been damaged," says Silverman. Axion has never done heavy-duty earthquake testing, but David Crane, Axion’s Executive Vice President for Building Products tells us that "fundamentally the material should work pretty well" in a quake.
The Onion Ditch Bridge fits right into Axion’s target market: 15-foot to 25-foot vehicular spans on county or secondary roads. Pricing for Struxure bridges is competitive when compared to regular bridges, according to Silverman. "Over the life of the bridge it’s a competitive value because the maintenance is far less," he says. That should sound enticing to local governments that are faced with deteriorating bridges.
"The reason these bridges deteriorate so much is because they require so much maintenance. It’s the old adage, 'I’ll wait til next year,'" says Silverman. "With our product, the beauty is we don’t need a maintenance budget."