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How Recycled Plastic Can Benefit Us in Construction

Photo by Josh Olalde on Unsplash

The properties of plastics that make it ideal for single use packaging are the same properties that make it harmful to the environment. Though, what if those properties could continue to benefit us after they are no longer needed for our packaging? What if, instead of plastics’ properties working against us after we use them, like polluting our oceans, they could continue to benefit us?

A key element of the circular model is for materials to continue circulating in the economy at their best values. For instance, we know that it is better for plastic bottles to be used again as plastic bottles, as it helps with quality assurance, resource conservation, reducing waste to landfill, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But what about instances when bottle to bottle recycling isn’t an option? In such instances it is better to downcycle the material, plastic in this case, than it is to send it to the landfill or worse, let it escape into the environment. Downcycling allows us to still conserve resources, reduce waste to landfills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This way the beneficial properties of plastics like their durability, high strength-to-weight ratio, and design flexibility can still be used to benefit us. Building materials using recycled plastics are an example of the benefits of plastics being extended beyond their original use. Below are just some of the ways that recycled plastic can be used in construction.

  • Floor tiles are quite popular as they add a desired look and functionality not found in other flooring options. Using sustainable plastic-based floor tiles has some added advantages not found in more traditional tiles. Less breakage during transport, ease of installation, easy cleaning, and their tendency to be less noisy are all benefits that come from sustainable plastic-based floor tiles. Before you think that it’s too costly, it turns out that pricing is quite competitive when compared to more traditional tiles.
  • Lumber is heavily used in construction, yet wood is prone to damage from insects and the weather so it must be sprayed with chemicals that can be harmful to the environment and increase costs. Plastic based lumber does not require spraying and is less flammable.
  • Roofing tiles made of concrete are a popular choice for many builders despite their heavy weight and the difficulty associated with their installation. Roofing tiles made from recycled plastics are lighter, easier to install, and their use does not compromise on quality. In fact, they have a better insulation capacity than concrete roofing tiles.
  • Concrete has been the material of choice for ages due its strength and durability. Recycling Today posted an article titled, “MIT students fortify concrete by adding recycled plastic”.[1] After exposing plastic flakes to gamma radiation, which is reported to be harmless, and pulverizing them into fine powder they mixed the irradiated plastic with cement paste and fly ash to produce concrete that was up to 15 percent stronger than conventional concrete. If this technology becomes widespread and is incorporated into concrete infrastructure globally to improve its flexibility and strength it would be a big win for the natural environment given the wide use of concrete and its associated carbon emissions. Replacing even small portions of concrete with irradiated plastics could reduce the cement industry’s global carbon footprint, according to the article.

As consumers, and residents on this planet we have much to gain from innovative material that supports circularity. We can take an active role to drive this innovation by being aware that these types of materials exist and using them in our construction projects, increasing demand. We can also play an active role by recycling our plastics and increasing supply. Influencing market forces like this increases the quality of the materials available to us and reduces their cost and, most importantly, benefits the environment.


[1] MIT students fortify concrete by adding recycled plastic - Recycling Today


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