Building Houses and Bridges From Used Plastic

Call it green architecture. Used plastic bottles — whether used as is or recycled first — are finding a useful second life as building materials for homes and bridges around the world rather than filling up landfills.

Sarah Firshein writes for Curbed about Alfredo Santa Cruz. As Argentina’s economy collapsed a decade ago, he hoped to scrape together a bit of money by collecting and recycling plastic bottles. Instead, as shown in the video above, he interlocked 24,000 sand-filled plastic bottles to create a fireproof house complete with furniture.

Firshein writes:

Cruz estimates that 20,000 people have come and taken advantage of his free training sessions, making his project not only a really cool piece of green architecture but also something that combats homelessness around the community.

Two bridge projects have relied on bottles and other waste plastic that was turned into composite materials.

Peeblesshire, Scotland, now boasts the world’s longest and sturdiest recycled bridge, according to Eoghan Macguire for CNN. It is 30 meters long and carries everything from pedestrians to heavy trucks across the River Tweed. Waste Management World reports that the bridge was made from 50 tons of waste plastic, built off-site, and installed in four days by Welsch polymer specialist Vertec. Engineers from Cardiff University in the U.K. and Rutgers University and Axion International, both in New Jersey, helped design the bridge.

Axion was involved in building a 26-foot bridge in York, Maine, as well as plastic railroad ties and a boardwalk in Trinidad and Tobago, reports Leslie Kaufman for NYTimes.com.

The strong-as-steel material used for the bridge and ties is a mix of fiberglass and plastic shredded from bottles for milk or laundry detergent. A professor at Rutgers developed the material, and Axion commercialized it. Although it costs twice as much as wood for the railroad ties, Kaufman points out the benefits: No hardwood trees are cut down, and bugs and water can’t eat through plastic.

Steven Silverman, Axion’s president and chief executive, told Kaufman:

[T]he manufacturing process is very clean; it uses electricity to heat the materials only, and no additional chemicals are added in recycling the plastics. The resulting polymer can be extruded into any shape.

Kaufman notes that Silverman is looking into other applications such as sound barriers along highways because the product costs a bit less than steel and concrete used now for bridges and barriers.

Source: “Thermoplastic Road Bridge Made from Recycled Plastics,” Waste Management World, 12/9/11
Source: “World’s longest recycled bridge spans Scottish river,” CNN, 12/5/11
Source: “Hard Plastic Bottles, Reborn as a Bridge,” NYTimes.com/Green blog, 12/2/11
Source: “Man Builds Whole House From 24,000 Used Plastic Bottles,” Curbed, 11/28/11


Rachel Petkewich is a freelance science writer and editor. She has worked as a research scientist in the chemical industry and spent eight years as a staff writer and editor at various science journals and magazines, including Chemical & Engineering News.

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