Imagine a road made out of plastic... Now it's happening in SA

An image shown during a presentation on plastic roads as the Kouga municipality launches a pilot road project in Jeffreys Bay
An image shown during a presentation on plastic roads as the Kouga municipality launches a pilot road project in Jeffreys Bay
Image: Supplied

What can you do with an old plastic carrier bag?

You could toss it in the bin – or you could help fight the global plastic pollution crisis and contribute towards fixing the roads in your area.

The Kouga Municipality will be doing just that by rolling out in Jeffreys Bay what is believed to be the first stretch of road in Africa made of plastic.

This innovative pilot project will be built by a Scottish company, MacRebur, together with Port Elizabeth companies SP Excel and Scribante.

They are expected to break ground in about three weeks and construct a 1km stretch of road made of plastic and asphalt in pothole-riddled Koraal Street.

They will use 1.5 tons of waste plastic, which equates to about 1.8-million plastic bags.

If the road passes all the tests and is found to be durable and affordable, the municipality hopes to expand it to other areas.

MacRebur SA representative Gareth Nel said on Monday the road would pose no danger to the environment.

“This is not a plastic road, it’s not going to look like plastic,” he said.

“It will look and feel exactly the same as a normal road, but it will be a higher-performing road.

“The benefits are long term. “The product is one of the most innovative ideas to come to Africa.

“It has the potential to alleviate three of your main concerns and improve the quality of roads.”

Nel said the idea had been taken from India, where plastic was used to fill potholes.

“They came up with the idea of making roads using waste plastic, reducing the plastic that wasn’t being recycled,” he said.

A total of 1,800 tests had been done to come up with the right formula.

“The product has been designed to withstand some of the hottest and coldest temperatures,” Nel said.

The plastic road was used for commercial car parks in Australia, highways and major roads in the United Kingdom, Turkey, Mumbai, Saudi Arabia and the United States, as well as for airport runways.

Nel said the idea was to set up a plant in SA that would be enough to cover the existing market and export to neighbouring countries.

“We are doing running tests and we will work with the different municipalities.

“We will build the roads, get people to test it and see if they want to use the roads – and once we have established a demand, we will invest and set up the plant,” he said.

Asked if this would not lead to micro-shedding, which ultimately harms the environment and sea life, Nel said: “There will be no chance of pollution.

“We have certificates from labs that state that tests have been run and there is proof that there is no leaching.

“In the long term, there will be no breakdown of the plastics because our product mixes completely with the asphalt.”

The plan is to use millions of waste plastic bags in the asphalt mix in road construction.

The pilot project will start in pothole-riddled Koraal Street in Jeffreys Bay
The pilot project will start in pothole-riddled Koraal Street in Jeffreys Bay
Image: Werner Hills

The idea was first presented to the roads and governance portfolio in the Eastern Cape Legislature and a motion was tabled later by DA MPL Vicky Knoetze.

The motion was debated in August 2017 and was rejected by the majority in the house.

At the time, the ANC said it was concerned that the road would go up in flames should protesters burn tyres during service delivery protests.

While Kouga’s road maintenance backlog is about R500m, the roads and infrastructure maintenance backlog for the Eastern Cape stands at R103bn.

Should the pilot road project be a success, the idea is to have a factory built in the province where the product would be manufactured.

The road is expected to last three times longer than usual, in turn reducing the maintenance to zero.

“We want to address the issue of poor roads and poor infrastructure,” Knoetze said.

“In Kouga, we are struggling with a backlog in roads and we are struggling with poor infrastructure.

“We also want to address plastic waste pollution that we see wherever we go and, lastly, we want to address the massive problem of unemployment related to poverty.”

She said the reason the province was not getting returns on its investment in infrastructure could be attributed to the ever-growing need to maintain the roads.

“The situation in terms of poor roads is that it is just becoming worse and worse on an annual basis, and if we don’t find a way to adequately address the backlog on road maintenance now we will be struggling with this for years to come.

“We will be doing what we have already been doing in a slightly different way that is more effective and more efficient,” Knoetze said.

She said in countries where the waste plastic road had been constructed, there had been no signs of potholes or deterioration. “This will make a huge impact in terms of getting rid of the waste plastic, keeping it out of the oceans and landfill sites.”

The plastic will need to be collected, separated and packaged before it is processed.

Kouga mayor Horatio Hendricks said Koraal Street was chosen because it was easily accessible.

“If it is the first road in Africa, then we expect neighbouring countries to come and test it,” he said.

“So, we had to choose a road that is easily accessible.

“We had to look at doing a road that is accessible and would encourage people from other towns and countries to come and test it.”

Infrastructure and engineering director Victor Felton said an analysis had been done.

“We also have to rehabilitate our roads and make them structurally sound, which means that we have to take out the lower layer,” he said.

“This is not just to scrape the road.

“Rehabilitation means you have to go right down to the bottom – the top layer is what we are talking about right now.

“The thing with water is that it seeps through the top layer and that’s what breaks the road – that is what we are trying to prevent here.”

The reaction from environmental groups was mixed.

Engineer Toby McCartney explains how his Scottish start-up MacRebur is persuading councils to use local waste plastic to build roads. Two English councils have already started building roads this way. A smartphone film for BBC World Hacks by Dougal Shaw.

Association of Commonwealth Universities fellow and Strathclyde University (Glasgow) researcher Steve Allen said he could not imagine that it would be a good idea.

“The concept of using waste plastic in road construction is quite new and there have not been any long-term studies that I know of with regard to releasing of microplastics and any environmental effects.

“While I applaud the effort to prevent plastics entering landfill, I feel it is perhaps best achieved by stopping the creation of unnecessary plastic waste in the first place.”

Algoa Bay Wildlife and Environmental Society of SA chair Gary Koekemoer said: “From a recycling point of view, it makes sense that we find a sustainable use for plastic.

“There would, however, be a need to research if there would be any leaking.

“If it can be done in a way that doesn’t affect the environment, it makes sense.”