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By David Pope
A 2004 research paper, Emission Reduction of Greenhouse Gases from the Cement Industry, co-sponsored by the Berkeley National Laboratory, estimated that up to 5 percent of the world’s global carbon dioxide emissions originate from the production of cement. Roughly half of the carbon is released during the calcination process while the remainder comes from the combustion phase. The exact carbon impact of cement is argued among experts; however there is some consensus that suggests today’s reliance warrants attention. One surprising alternative to the world’s cement addiction has reportedly been found amongst the globe’s landfills and recycling centers. Could hard-plastics (soda bottles and laundry soap containers) really be a cost-effective and environmentally considerate place to find the next raw material for the world’s most structurally demanding projects?
Cement is the key ingredient in concrete, a long-standing component of today’s worldwide construction methodology. Limestone is the raw ingredient required for the production of cement, and due to its worldwide prevalence concrete is available in almost every country around the globe. As a result, carbon is spewed in nearly every developing nation as concrete is developed to transform the world’s blueprints into reality.
While the world remains full of limestone, we also happen to be busting at the seams with an abundance of used plastic bottles. In comparison, based on 2010 data, the EPA estimates that the US alone generates 31 million tons of new plastics annually and only recovers 7.6 percent of the material. The same study calculated that 62.5 percent of paper and paperboard is recovered annually to be recycled at a profit.
Could the world’s trash heap be the next raw construction material for the remainder of the 21st century? New Jersey’s Axion International (AXIH) believes so, and as a result has brought a new development to market that questions conventional construction wisdom. Axion can turn plastic that lines streets and occupies landfills into a stronger and cheaper building material than even cement or steel. Currently Axion’s portfolio includes composite railroad ties, I-beams, pilings, and boards, but a nearly endless possibility of structural uses could exist tomorrow.
According to a New York Times article on Axion, the company’s recipe stems from a development of Thomas Nosker, a professor of engineering at Rutgers. Nosker created a plastic polymer that is a mixture of shredded plastics and fiberglass, with no chemical additives. According to Steven Silverman, Axion’s president, the company uses a clean manufacturing process that utilizes electricity to heat the plastic and fiberglass to create a polymer that is molded into the final product. Axion claims that the product will not “rust, splinter, crumble, rot, absorb moisture or leach toxic chemicals into the environment.”
Current developments such as a 26-by-15 foot bridge in Maine (picture) are living examples of how the polymer can replace the use of steel, concrete, and pressure treated hardwood. As a result, Axion has completed the first 100 percent recycled plastic vehicular bridge in the US highway system, which also happens to meet the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) specifications.
While this might be a wise use of a material that currently exists in abundance today, the supply chain of recycled plastics is not infinite. As we simultaneously try to eliminate the rampant consumption of plastics, a promotion of its use has the potential to drive demand. If it’s use in construction becomes successful, could this behavior someday promote an increased consumption of native plastics (non-recycled) as Axion’s raw material? Are city sky rises, parking structures, and even the foundations of new residential homes the next opportunity for the deployment of this technology? It sounds promising today, but are there unforeseen risks tomorrow?