The advent of recycled plastic building materials is changing the construction landscape as we know it today.
Plastic waste is inescapable. It is everywhere. From the waste bin in the yard to the huge dump in the ocean, plastic accounts for almost 90% of all the waste generated.
Plastic is the cheapest and the most common material around, and it is primarily designed for single use. Once the products encased in plastic are used, the plastic packaging is discarded.
As is well known, plastic is not biodegradable; i.e., it cannot naturally decompose. Plastic products hang around for hundreds of years before showing even the earliest signs of degradation. But even then, they cannot decay; they only become smaller.
Now, to protect the lovely planet Earth from this non-decaying material, recycling can put plastic to good use. One of the industries making good use of recycled plastic is building and construction, where recycled plastic is used to produce some new and innovative sustainable building materials.
Recycled building materials are sustainable, all the while maintaining the same integrity as new, non-recycled materials.
For example, concrete can be broken down and recycled into fresh concrete for sidewalks, roofing tiles, and driveways. And recycled plastic can be used as a filler in concrete to reduce the concrete’s weight and carbon footprint.
Metal can be melted and reformed into new metal products. Glass can also be melted and reformed into new glass products. Large pieces of lumber can be reused directly in other buildings and can also be cut and reshaped to make furniture.
Asphalt paving can be crushed and recycled back into new asphalt.
Plastic has several qualities which qualify it as a viable component that can be used to produce green building materials. It is water- and corrosion-resistant, an effective electrical and thermal insulator, and is very durable. Despite these advantages, though, pure plastic is not suitable for structural components like pillars, beams, planks, etc. for several reasons.
Plastic is not as strong as materials like wood and steel and may not be able to bear excess weight for long. Also, plastic is less suited for drilling, nailing, and screwing than wood because of its texture. To safely and effectively use plastic to build houses, it must be mixed with other materials to form composite building materials.
Thanks to advancements in technology, plastic waste can be recycled into building materials that are strong enough to replace wood and metal. The most notable recycled plastic building materials with current applications include:
For several years now, tile has been the most preferred floor covering for a home, and flooring materials containing recycled plastic have become more common.
The advantages of sustainable plastic-based floor tiles include:
- Less breakage during transport
- Easier, faster, and safer to transport
- Easier to clean
- Easy to install
- Less noise
- Competitive pricing
Lumber naturally comes from trees and is used mainly for structural purposes, but it also has other uses, including furniture and other items requiring cutting and shaping.
In construction, lumber has been used for rails and bridges. Wood is prone to damage from insects and the weather and must be sprayed with chemicals to protect the wood and these are harmful to the environment besides time and cost consuming.
On the other hand, plastic-based lumber does not require spraying, and it is lighter than steel and stronger, and less flammable than wood.
Fences are an essential feature of a home as they help contain children and pets within the property, keep out rodents and other animals, display boundaries, protect the yard or lawn, etc.
Builders and homeowners can prioritize sustainability by designing and erecting fences made of reinforced recycled plastic. Fences built with recycled building material such as plastic:
- Can withstand many weather elements without rotting
- Are durable
- Are easier and faster to erect
- Can have paint mixed in during production
Concrete roof tiles are heavy, difficult to install, and not eco-friendly. Using recycled plastics to build roofing tiles, on the other hand, has far more environmental and economic benefits than more expensive materials like slate and concrete tiles, yet it does not compromise the quality.
Roofing tiles made from recycled plastics:
- Are lighter, thereby reducing hauling fees
- Are easier and faster to install
- Have lower “damage” percentages
- Have a better insulation capacity.
Smart Gravel is one of the newest recycled building materials revamping the construction landscape. Pioneered by Arqlite, an Argentinian-based company, Smart Gravel has received much attention due to its versatility and eco-friendliness.
Smart Gravel can be used in a concrete mix to replace some of the natural gravel to reduce its carbon footprint. For non-structural applications, it can be used as the only aggregate in a concrete mix to produce super-light concrete.
Smart Gravel can be used in:
- Paving blocks
- French drain
- Decorative concrete
- Concrete boundary walls and fences
- Concrete sidewalks
- Soilless growing mediums (hydroponics)
- Drainage systems
- Pots and raised garden beds
- Septic tanks
Some benefits of products made with Smart Gravel include:
- Reduced weight
- Easy transportation
- Improved thermal and acoustic insulation
- Easy installation and removal
Bricks were probably the first construction materials to draw attention when the construction industry began moving toward environmentally friendly building practices.
Many attempts have been made to make bricks as green as possible, and scientists have experimented with bricks containing recycled plastic. These bricks are heat resistant and can be used in the construction of pavements, sidewalks, outdoor flooring, road construction, etc.
Due to its strength and durability, concrete has become one of the most reliable materials in the construction of both commercial and domestic buildings. Builders use concrete for important parts of a structure like the foundation, stairs, pillars, decking, and roof.
To produce greener and stronger concrete, students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) experimented with mixing the irradiated plastic powder with cement paste.
The concrete they produced was up to 15% stronger, longer-lasting, and more eco-friendly than regular concrete.
In a 2021 research report published on GlobeNewsWire, Precedence Research noted that “the global recycled plastic market size is predicted to surpass around US$ 77 billion by 2030 and is expanding growth at a CAGR of 4.8% from 2021 to 2030.”
The same report indicated that the building and construction industry, which uses recycled plastic to produce fences, windows, concrete, Smart Gravel, etc., is expected to contribute significantly towards the growth of the global recycled plastic market in the years to come.
This means that the coming years should see a wider acceptance of recycled plastic building materials in both structural and non-structural applications.