Skip to main content
Move the World.
Paving the Way With Recycled Roads

Last year, China severed the world's recycling pipeline.

Beijing's "National Sword" initiative essentially banned the import of plastics and other recyclable materials into the country in 2018. Before the scabbard came off, China's recycling plants handled almost half of the world's plastic waste. Since then, plants have refused to take any waste that does not meet an almost impossible purity standard, and countries are now scrambling to dispose of recyclable materials in novel ways.

In some places, that means incineration; in others, it means infrastructure with recycled roads.

Paved with Plastics

Peter Tamblyn has not seen so much enthusiasm for recycling in his native Australia in the six decades of his life. Among the most optimistic about this new — and newly necessary — social shift is Close the Loop, an Australian-based multi-national whose mission is to foster a "circular economy" by developing sustainability programs and products. As the sales and marketing manager for Asian and Pacific markets at Close the Loop, Tamblyn's job is to get one such recycled product, called TonerPlas, on the ground in as many places as possible.

A recycled road has been paved with asphalt that contains the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of plastic bags, along with thousands of glass bottles and printer cartridges’ worth of waste toner.

A recycled road has been paved north of Melbourne with asphalt that contains the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of plastic bags, along with thousands of glass bottles and printer cartridges' worth of waste toner. Those waste products were reduced down to their polymer forms and turned into pellets by Close the Loop. This recycled product is TonerPlas. An Australian infrastructure company, the Downer Group, uses the recycled plastic pellets to replace the virgin polymers, normally derived from oil, that bind asphalt's rocky material together.

"It's a way of using a lot of recycled material into a product which makes sense," Tamblyn says.

In addition to the sheer amount of recycled materials the process will divert away from landfills, the roads provide other ecological advantages. According to Tamblyn, the TonerPlas-infused asphalt performs as well as most high-quality, premium asphalts, but at a much lower price.

These longer-lasting roads also help to reduce the carbon footprint of construction. According to Tamblyn, the impact has already been measured as more than a 30% reduction in emissions from the manufacturing of the road alone. The Downer Group came to that figure using a carbon footprint model that considered a myriad of factors, including using recycled materials, not needing to ship as many virgin materials, and the lower heat required to make TonerPlas. 

And if these cheaper recycled roadways have the longer lifespans of higher-grade products, construction and maintenance costs may be reduced for the recycled road's entire life, too.

A crew member laying the first TonerPlas-containing road in Craigieburn, Victoria, a northern suburb of Melbourne. TonerPlas is a recycled product made of thousands of plastic bags, glass bottles, and printer cartridges. Photo courtesy of Close the Loop.

A crew member laying the first TonerPlas-containing road in Craigieburn, Victoria, a northern suburb of Melbourne. TonerPlas is a recycled product made of thousands of plastic bags, glass bottles, and printer cartridges. Photo courtesy of Close the Loop.

In addition to the sheer amount of recycled materials TonerPlas will divert away from landfills, the roads perform as well as most high-quality, premium asphalts but at a much lower price.

The Cold Water

Despite being cheaper and having the Chinese pipeline cut off, there are challenges to making TonerPlas the industry standard.

TonerPlas roads have been laid outside Australia. In Kentucky, Lexmark — a longtime partner of Close the Loop that supplies their recyclable toner — used their own waste toner to pave a massive parking lot outside their R&D building. A stretch of road has been laid in Georgia, as well. But there's a reason the American trial sites have been well south of the Mason-Dixon line: they do not do well in freezing temperatures.

"We need to make some adjustments to the type of polymers we put into our pellet, because you have that freeze/thaw situation," Tamblyn says. That "situation" is not a common problem in Australia, but water will destroy asphalt when it gets inside the road, freezes, and expands. Icy wedges open up gaping holes seen on the streets of Chicago and other freeze-prone cities. Trials in the U.S. and U.K. are attempting to fix the problem. According to Tamblyn, progress has already been made.

Perceptions can be just as harsh as the weather. There is a public conception that recycled products are inferior to new ones. Close the Loop's process essentially creates new polymers but from raw material made of recycled sources. Fears of microplastics being sprinkled into the roadway like Funfetti — Tamblyn likens it to more to dissolving sugar in coffee — cause concern as well. And engineers, who prefer products to be tried and true, may be reluctant to use a new material for so important a purpose without more proof of concept.

“If we don’t go from linear to circular, we’re going to have a serious issue with resources,”

Peter Tamblyn

The Road Ahead

Tamblyn believes all these challenges can be surmounted, and he’s hopeful about the future of recycled waste in a way he has not been before.

“We’re much more resilient than we think we are,” Tamblyn says. He sees the Australian conversation about and investment in recycled materials as a step forward. A broad view of the world reveals not a collection of straight-line use of resources — done, dumped, and digging again — but a contained ecosystem of sustainability, a model for our own economic future.

“If we don’t go from linear to circular, we’re going to have a serious issue with resources,” Tamblyn says.

Subscribe

Up Next

Change-Makers
This Big Wave Surfer Is Changing How We Fight Wildfires
This Big Wave Surfer Is Changing How We Fight Wildfires
Change-Makers
This Big Wave Surfer Is Changing How We Fight Wildfires
Fire retardant spray contains toxins that are harmful to the environment and first responders, but Jeff Denholm is looking to change that.

Fire retardant spray contains toxins that are harmful to the environment and first responders, but Jeff Denholm is looking to change that.

Our Changing Planet
Preparing for Climate Change
Preparing for Climate Change
Our Changing Planet
Preparing for Climate Change
Climate change is increasingly reshaping our world, but communities across America aren’t losing hope — they’re taking action. Learn how 18 communities are using science to guide community-based decision-making.
By Teresa Carey

Climate change is increasingly reshaping our world, but communities across America aren’t losing hope — they’re taking action. Learn how 18 communities are using science to guide community-based decision-making.

Sustainability
These Scientists Extract Plastic From Bacteria
These Scientists Extract Plastic From Bacteria
Sustainability
These Scientists Extract Plastic From Bacteria
By 2050, there may be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish. Canadian innovator Luna Yu hopes to change this by turning waste into biodegradable plastics.
By Teresa Carey

By 2050, there may be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish. To add to that, 1.3 billion tons of the food produced each year globally is wasted or lost. Canadian innovator Luna Yu hopes to transform these problems by turning waste into biodegradable plastics.

Catalysts
This Woman is On a Mission to Turn Beer into Food
This Woman is On a Mission to Turn Beer into Food
Catalysts
This Woman is On a Mission to Turn Beer into Food
Jacquie Berglund is using the profits from her beer company to buy organic produce from local farmers and distribute the produce to food banks in the area.
By Teresa Carey

Jacquie Berglund considers herself more of a wine drinker than a beer drinker, yet she is building an empire around the beer brand, Finnegans. When Berglund purchased the brand for only a dollar, she knew that if Finnegans were to make an impact, the beer needed to be in every pub in Minnesota. Now you can find Finnegans in four Midwest states. But Finnegans is more than a beer company. From combating food insecurity to...

Innovation
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
Watch Now
Innovation
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
18 billion pounds of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year. This microbrewery created biodegradable six pack rings to help stem the tide.
Watch Now

Saltwater Brewery was a regular microbrewery that made great craft beer - packaged with the usual plastic six pack rings. As fishermen who saw firsthand the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, though, they felt they needed to make a change to help marine animals. They came up with the idea to create edible six pack rings made of biodegradable materials left over from the brewing process. Now, they’ve created a new...

Wrong
3 Times Our Brightest Minds Made Bad Predictions
3 Times Our Brightest Minds Made Bad Predictions
Wrong
3 Times Our Brightest Minds Made Bad Predictions
Some of the predictions might look outlandish now, but at the time they actually seemed quite plausible.
By Michael O'Shea

Some of the predictions might look outlandish now, but at the time they actually seemed quite plausible.

Challengers
What Can We Learn From an Entrepreneur Whose Business Failed?
What Can We Learn From an Entrepreneur Whose Business Failed?
Challengers
What Can We Learn From an Entrepreneur Whose Business Failed?
Luke Kenworthy put everything he had into making his business work. But it didn't pan out. Now he's sharing what he...
By Mike Riggs

Luke Kenworthy put everything he had into making his business work. But it didn't pan out. Now he's sharing what he learned through it all.

Challengers
Powering the World With Nuclear
Powering the World With Nuclear
Watch Now
Challengers
Powering the World With Nuclear
Transatomic believes they've figured out a safe, scalable, cost-effective way to power the world with nuclear.
Watch Now

Transatomic is designing a nuclear reactor that can produce a lot more electricity than a conventional reactor, while creating a lot less nuclear waste. But they’ll need to take on a deeply entrenched industry and convince a cautious public that they can safely harness the most powerful energy in the world.

Karen Aiach on Doing the Impossible
Karen Aiach on Doing the Impossible
Watch Now
Karen Aiach on Doing the Impossible
When Karen Aiach decided to quit her finance job in 2005 in order to find a cure for the rare genetic disease that...
Watch Now

When Karen Aiach decided to quit her finance job in 2005 in order to find a cure for the rare genetic disease that was killing her daughter, people told her it was impossible. In a weird way, it was just what Karen needed to hear. Because it meant if she didn’t do it, no one else would. She started with a search. The first thing she learned is that her daughter’s disease--a rare metabolic disorder called Sanfilippo...