News that the world's first bike path made from recycled plastic has been completed in the Netherlands is impressive — and also not at all surprising.
In fact, this very moment seemed inevitable. In a country with a famously robust yet easygoing bicycling culture as well as a penchant for transforming plastic waste into marvelous new things, why wouldn't the Dutch be the first to start paving bike lanes with old soda bottles?
Stretching a short 30 meters (100 feet) in the northeastern city of Zwolle, the two-lane bike path's surface is paved with the equivalent of a half-million plastic bottle caps and promises to be two to three more times durable than run-of-the-mill asphalt. Although impervious to potholes and cracks, if the path is heavily damaged or falls into disrepair, it can easily be removed and recycled again.
It's the first of a small handful of pilot projects from PlasticRoad, a nascent road-building technology venture spearheaded by Dutch civil engineering firm KWS in partnership with plastic pipe-maker Wavin and France-headquartered gas and oil mega-company Total.
Located in the Overijssel province about an hour's train ride north of Amsterdam, Zwolle is a stunningly preserved medieval merchant town that today boasts a sizable population of more than 125,000 residents, a majority of whom inevitably own and regularly use a bicycle or two. Despite having above-average cycling infrastructure already in place (and receiving the Best Cycling City of the Netherlands award in 2014), Zwolle is ultimately most famous not for bikes but for its rich history and for having a museum with a massive, glittering egg plopped on top.
The Museum de Fundatie: Given that one of its most notable buildings looks like this, Zwolle is obviously a town that's open to new ideas and experimentation. (Photo: -Ebelien-/Flickr)
Zwolle's recycled plastic bike path can be found alongside Deventerstraatweg, a major street that runs along the edge of Assendorp, a lively residential district just outside the river-bounded city center.
After Zwolle, the next Dutch town to get a recycled plastic bike path will be the ridiculously idyllic — and largely car-free — village of Giethoorn. That installation is due to take place in November. The Giethoorn path will be used to "test new features" of the technology according to a press statement released by PlasticRoad.
Rotterdam, a sprawling port city that initially struggled to regain its inherent bike-friendliness after it was decimated during World War II and rebuilt as a weirdly Americanized car-tropolis, will likely trial a PlasticRoad project following that per the Guardian. And depending on how these initial pilots pan out, PlasticRoad promises many more recycled plastic bike paths and additional applications — sidewalks, parking lots, train platforms and eventually standard roads — to come.
"This first pilot is a big step towards a sustainable and future-proof road made of recycled plastic waste," explain Anne Koudstaal and Simon Jorritsma, the two KWS consultants credited for conceiving PlasticRoad. "When we invented the concept, we didn't know how to build a plastic road, now we know."
Follow the red-ish recycled plastic bike path
Now that a recycled plastic road is being trialed as an abbreviated bike path in one Dutch city (with more to follow), it's worth delving into how PlasticRoad stands apart as an alternative to CO2-intensive asphalt.
The inaugural recycled plastic bike path was constructed off-site as a series of lightweight prefabricated sections that were then transported to Zwolle and linked together in an installation process touted as being 70 percent speedier than constructing a traditional asphalt-based road or, in this case, bike path. Long-lasting and low-maintenance, the so-called "road structures" are "virtually insensitive to conditions such as weather influences and weeds," explains the PlasticRoad website.
The modular road segments are also multitaskers: Hollow beneath the recycled plastic-coated surface, they're meant to capture and retain rainwater in flooding events (the Dutch are obviously old pros at manipulating water) with plenty of room to accommodate cables and pipes.
As mentioned, the concept was designed with a cradle-to-cradle ethos. That is, the plastic road surface material can be recycled and reused in perpetuity. And for the most part, the modest stretch of PlasticRoad is indistinguishable from the other dedicated cycling paths that lace Zwolle. (You'll have to visit Eindhoven to experience a truly far-out bike path.) The basic nuts and bolts and benefits of the technology are described in the video below.
Prior to installation, the modules were outfitted with a series of sensors that monitor a variety of elements: temperature, performance and durable and how many cyclists ride along the potentially game-changing bike path at any given time. PlasticRoad notes that, thanks to the presence of all the sensors, the pilot project in Zwolle isn't just the world's first bike path constructed from plastic waste but also the world's first smart bike path.
Based on data gleaned from the sensors, PlasticRoad will continue to tweak and improve the technology. Ideally, the company will also incorporate more recycled plastic in the process provided that the Zwolle pilot path was constructed using a "significant amount" of recycled plastic along with some non-recycled plastic. The "end goal," explains PlasticRoad, is to use 100 percent recycled materials be it for a bike path, parking lot or highway.
PlasticRoad notes that of the 350 million tons of plastic that's consumed annually, a large majority of it winds up being sent to landfills or incinerated after being discarded by consumers. Of all the plastic used in Europe, only 7 percent contains recycled materials.
"You see a bottle; we see a road," the Guardian quotes co-inventor Jorritssma as saying when the concept was first announced in 2015.
So far, reactions to PlasticRoad's first application as a Zwolle bike path have been largely positive. But there is some skepticism. Emma Priestland, a plastics campaigner with environmental organization Friends of the Earth, argues that there should be more emphasis on avoiding plastics altogether, not on innovative ways to recycle the ocean-polluting stuff over and over again.
"Using plastic to make bicycle paths may help to keep plastics out of landfill ... but it's still unclear what happens to this plastic as the surface of the path is worn away," she tells Reuters.
Fortunately, the Netherlands is also ahead of the game when it comes to avoiding plastic, at least on the food packaging front. Earlier this year, the world's first plastic packaging-free supermarket aisle debuted at an Amsterdam location of a popular Dutch organic grocer.