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There’s a good reason why plastic bottles are littering the roads in Bhutan

Flickr: Juan Carlos Madrigal

Borrowing technology first used in nearby India, a new program in the city of Thimphu, Bhutan, hopes to curb the country’s growing plastic waste problem by using discarded plastics to pave roads.

The private and publicly funded Green Road Project, which already has the green light from Bhutan’s Department of Roads, is expected cut the amount of plastic waste going to landfills by 30 to 40 percent and reduce the amount of bitumen, or asphalt, the country imports from India by 40 percent. 

“We will use the plastic waste to build eco-friendly and durable roads in the country,” said Rikesh Gurung, the engineer and entrepreneur spearheading the project. “Recycling plastic waste and not burning it is the correct approach to protect the environment.”

Gurung brought the idea back to Bhutan after studying at Thiagarajar College of Engineering in Madurai, India. The college actually has a patent on the process, and several road projects in Madurai and other neighboring cities have used the plastic-asphalt mix. Basically, plastic bottles and bags are collected and taken to a shredding factory, melted down, and then used to coat the stones and rubble that are mixed into the paving asphalt. Indian engineers have found that the mixture lasts twice as long as regular asphalt, is water resistant, has better binding properties, requires less maintenance, and is cheaper than asphalt-only road paving.

According to Gurung, while only about 10 to 15 percent of the mix is made up of plastics, in Bhutan, with a population of just under 800,000, the project could eventually use up all of the country’s plastic waste. The resilient paving mixture is also ideal for Bhutan’s mountainous roadways, which require constant maintenance owing to harsh weather and are plagued with potholes. The country spends more than $4 million a year repairing potholes, many of them half the width of the road and just as deep, but it remains a big problem for drivers.

R. Vasudevan, dean and head of the chemistry department at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, who developed the mixture and is referred to as the “Plastic Road Man” in Madurai, said the Bhutan project “might have to modify some procedures” to suit the mountainous terrain and high altitude.

Still, Ramalinga Chandra Sekar, a colleague of Vasudevan’s who is an adviser to Bhutan’s Green Road Project, remains confident that the plastic-asphalt mix will make roads in the country stronger and more durable.

For a city dubbed the “Capital City of Potholes” by the local newspaper, that will be a welcome development.

This article was written by David McNair in support of TakePart.