In India, roads made from shredded plastic are proving a popular solution to tackling waste and extreme weather
In India, plastic roads serve as a ready-made landfill for a certain kind of ubiquitous urban trash. Flimsy, single-use items like shopping bags and foam packaging are the ideal raw material. Impossible to recycle, they are a menace, hogging space in garbage dumps, clogging city drains and even poisoning the air. Delhi’s air, in particular, has been called a “toxic pollutant punchbowl” partly due to contaminants from plastic-fueled street bonfires.
However, urban plastic roads are still a rarity in India. Chennai was an early adopter of the technology, building its plastic roads from waste materials donated by the public. One satellite town even offered a gram of gold as an incentive for citizens to collect discarded plastic bags in 2012. But a year later, the plan was abandoned, because the city could not produce enough shredded plastic waste. It was also rumored that influential road builders, threatened by the prospect of pothole-free roads, had scuttled the project. Late last year, the mayor of Chennai announced the plastic road project was being revived, triggered in part by the devastation to Chennai’s roads after the floods of 2015.
Last November, the Indian government announced that plastic roads would be the default method of construction for most city streets, part of a multibillion-dollar overhaul of the country’s roads and highways. Urban areas with more than 500,000 people are now required to construct roads using waste plastic. The project even has the blessing of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has made “Swachh Bharat” (which translates to “Clean India”) a kind of personal crusade.
With so many projects underway, the Indian government is looking to a range of alternative materials to lower costs. The Delhi-Meerut Expressway, for example, which is currently under construction, may use unsegregated trash from one of the capital’s overflowing landfills to build its base and embankments. In an interview with the Times of India, India’s roads minister Nitin Gadkari said: “Delhi will get rid of these mounds and we will get the material for laying base with little expense.”
The reintroduction of plastics into the environment is not entirely without consequence. Old roads or poorly built ones are likely to shed plastic fragments into the soil and eventually waterways when they deteriorate as a result of photodegradation, which causes plastics to break down when exposed to environmental factors such as light and heat.