Should We Be Using Recycled Plastics in Construction Materials?

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There are “uncertainties about long-term performance and environmental impact.”

This story was originally published by Grist and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Last month, the American Chemistry Council, a petrochemical industry trade group, sent out a newsletter highlighting a major new report on what it presented as a promising solution to the plastic pollution crisis: using “recycled” plastic in construction materials. At first blush, it might seem like a pretty good idea—shred discarded plastic into tiny pieces and you can reprocess it into everything from roads and bridges to railroad ties. Many test projects have been completed in recent years, with proponents touting them as a convenient way to divert plastic waste from landfills while also making infrastructure lighter, more rot-resistant, or, ostensibly, more durable.

“As our nation sets about rebuilding our infrastructure and restoring our resilience, plastic will play an outsized role,” the American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a petrochemical industry trade group, says on one of its websites.

But independent experts tell a much more complicated story, suggesting that most applications involving plastic waste in infrastructure are not ready for prime time. In recent years, several reports and literature reviews have highlighted the unknown health and environmental impacts of repurposing plastic into construction materials. They’ve also warned that post-consumer plastic isn’t desirable for use in many types of infrastructure—and that diverting plastic into construction is unlikely to make much of a dent in the massive tide of plastic waste that the developed world produces. On the contrary, adding used plastic to construction materials could even incentivize more plastic production.  

Take a closer look at the 407-page National Academies of Sciences report the ACC highlighted in its newsletter, for example, and you’ll find that it said there has been virtually “no significant research” in the United States to back claims about the benefits of using plastic in roads. Other construction applications face “high material and installation costs,” as well as “uncertainties about long-term performance and environmental impact.”

“There is opportunity to expand reuse of plastics in infrastructure applications,” the report concludes, “but it is not clear that this reuse pathway offers the greatest benefit to society.” 

Several recent studies have raised environmental concerns about microplastics, tiny fragments of plastics that could potentially slough off of plastic-infused infrastructure. Others say plastic chemicals could leach from plastic-infused construction materials into nearby waterways. (This already happens with materials that don’t have plastics in them.)

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