Building Technology: Plastic Waste for Infrastructure by Stanford Engineers
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The question is can plastic waste be used to build various kinds of infrastructure? Stanford Engineers have answered yes to that as Michael Lepech and Zhiye Li of Stanford Engineers discuss the possibility of it in their recent studies. The idea of using and incorporating recycled glass fiber-reinforced polymer composite a tensile plastic commonly used in car, boat, and plane parts, into infrastructures including public highways and buildings is much possible. This can redefine the way we build, architecture and technology industries based on the fact that less than 10 percent of the plastic waste is being recycled yearly out of the seven billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally according to Designboom website.
According to Michael Lepech, the recycling plastic waste to be used for infrastructure purposes can be considered progressive since ‘the amount of material, along with its likely uniform composition, would make recycling it into another infrastructure application significantly easier.’ Though, challenges are still inevitable and until these have been sorted out, improper plastic waste recycling and turning it into buildings, highways, and other types of infrastructure may not be certain yet.
Just as Zhiye Li highlights the issues concerning the economics and logistics of managing plastic waste streams from municipal solid waste. ‘Plastic waste material flow is highly variable. Its mass can change from month to month, as can the type of plastic with lots of different packaging, for example.’ Without proper waste sorting systems and active upcycling innovation, transforming the reason waste piles up deems challenging especially since the materials of plastic can differ and only some can be used for specific purposes.
In their studies, a report has it that Stanford University Engineers said there is value in upcycling plastics into infrastructure but that at the same time, it needs to achieve certain performance requirements and still maintain low environmental impacts compared to traditional construction materials. Through their studies, they looked into examples where plastic waste has been used for buildings and roads including the facade panels in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the pavement in a California Department of Transportation road project.
Especially Snohetta-designed San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which underwent a facade expansion. The design team employed fiberglass-reinforced plastic, the largest architectural application in the US to date according to glazing contractor Enclos for the rippling surface of the exterior. Driving to Oroville in California, Caltrans repaved a section of Highway 162 with recycled asphalt pavement and liquid plastic made with single-use, plastic bottles in 2020. It was the first time the department paved a road using 100 percent recycled materials, according to a government report.
Better plastic waste sorting management will be needed in order to achieve this. These case studies fuel the studies of Michael Lepech and Zhiye Li on the future of plastic waste for future infrastructure. Zhiye Li cautions that while there are many ways to reuse plastic for various applications, not all kinds can survive long or can be integrated into the infrastructure. ‘For example, packaging consumes more than 60% of global recycled plastic but has a short lifespan. Some automotive parts can be made with recycled plastic, but they require relatively little plastic to produce.’
Still, potential advantages are noted including reduced potential for environmental emergencies such as oil spills and reduced insurance premiums,’ There is certainly an opportunity for growth by targeting markets that value environmentally friendly or sustainable products. Firms can achieve increased clarity in strategic direction when they align value chains with corporate mission, especially in the case of environmentally conscious firms,’ he said.
Name: Plastic waste for infrastructure
Institution: Stanford University
Engineers: Michael Lepech and Zhiye Li
Edited by: MJ | Buildace Magazine