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Ready for Rubbish Roads?

3 minute read

Road quality, roadworthiness and design are issues commonly raised during discussions surrounding road deaths in Australia.

According to data collated by The Global Economy, Australian roads rank 33rd in quality when compared to the roads of 140 other countries. In fact, on a scale of one to seven – one being underdeveloped and seven being extensive and efficient – Australian roads scored an average of 4.90.¹

While the overall score could be worse, there is much to be reaped through improvements. International Road Assessment Program has revealed that improving the standard of a given road by as little as an additional star, could halve a road user’s risk of serious injury or death.2

Investing in regional and remote roads alone has the power to drastically reduce the economic and social costs of road trauma, all while saving lives.

However, improvements cost money and one kilometre of a road can cost an average of $3.8 million to $5.4 million to produce.3 This means building new or even fixing the entirety of Australia’s roads could easily cost over $3 trillion – a price that many Australians do not want to pay for via more taxes or increased fines.

Could the solution to our road problem be… rubbish?

In a bid to tackle the pollution problem, countries have begun incorporating waste products into road materials. India was the first country to test the use of part plastic, aggregate and bitumen roads two decades ago when chemistry professor, Dr Vasudevan, paved a road in India with plastic-modified bitumen.4 Today, thousands of kilometres of roads in India have been paved using hybrid materials that have produced structurally sound results.

Since then, places in Europe, South Africa, Vietnam, Mexico, the Philippines, Ghana and the US have followed suit, with many only just recently building their first plastic roads.

Pushed by China and Indonesia’s refusal to import waste from various nations a few years ago, Australia’s interest in plastic roads has only grown.

Old Princes Highway in Engadine NSW, Rayfield Ave in Craigieburn VIC, and Princess Street in Cleveland QLD were the first to be resurfaced with a small amount of part plastic road mix. The road in Craigieburn is now made up of 530,000 plastic bags, more than 12,000 recycled printer cartridges and 168,000 glass bottles.5,6,7

Given the relatively new introduction of plastic road developments, an in-depth assessment of the long-term durability of these plastics is still being analysed; however, a growing number of studies have stated that plastic roads aren’t only cheaper to build but also perform better than traditional roads.

Some benefits include:

  • Improved stability
  • Improved strength
  • Resistance to water damage
  • Fewer cracks and potholes
  • Longer fatigue life (how long material lasts under traffic loads)

While the introduction of such materials may provide a temporary solution for our plastic and road quality problem, some are apprehensive that this development might not be so environmentally friendly.

Carbon emissions produced from heating plastics, potential chemical and microplastic seepage from roads and the resultant contamination of the environment are all concerns surrounding the use of plastic on our roads. Some environmentalists also argue that the use of plastic as a building material in our road transport network will only further perpetuate the uptake of single-use plastic in our everyday lives.8

As pollution and road quality problems continue to persist in Australia, we may see more of these hybrid roads pop up. But can a viable solution be found in these part plastic roads… or is it all just a load of rubbish?

Sources: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

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