RoadThroughout history, roads have been critical to the development of advanced economies. From the roman roads of classical times to todays cement superhighways, they have connected important centres of commerce, reducing travel times and shipping costs considerable.

Although roads have changed through time, up to this point in history, they have still been constructed using stone, gravel, and other natural materials (supplemented, of course, by tar).

VolkerWessels, a Dutch group of companies, hopes to change that. It has recently announced a project called PlasticRoads. It’s goal – to develop and test the technology required to built plastic roads.

The idea is that roads could be produced as prefabricated plastic sections, which could be joined together during construction.

The companies claim that plastic roads would have numerous advantages. These include the following:

  • Durability – the group claims that plastic roads have to potential to last three times as long as conventional roads, cutting maintenance costs.
  • Ease of road building – prefabricated road segments are easier to install than traditional roads. They can be lined up and attached rapidly, and, since they weigh much less than traditional tar-based roads, they don’t require as much foundation work (typically a road weighs much more than the cars driving on it). Finally, water drainage systems can be integrated into the modular road segments, reducing time spent installing piping.
  • Conducive to integration of other promising road technologies – in recent years, many ideas for improving roads have been proposed. These include heated roads, roads that generate electricity as they are driven on, and roads that absorb noise. The modular and customizable nature of plastic roads will allow for easier integration of these technologies.

Despite their numerous advantages, don’t expect to see plastic roads everywhere. Their characteristics are more ideal in some settings than in others. For example, in extremely cold climates, plastic roads could become brittle and degrade more rapidly. In addition, the higher cost of plastic roads makes them most suitable for high volume uses, such as in urban and suburban areas. Finally, there hasn’t been enough research into the traction characteristics of the plastic road surface – such research would need to be carried out before the roads could become widespread.

Nevertheless, the companies are planning on conducting a pilot project in Rotterdam. The results will give us a better indication of whether plastic roads are, indeed, the way of the future.

To learn more about the PlasticRoads project, check out the website of VolkerWessels.