In Bhutan, the road to green development is paved with plastic

road thimpu paro bhutan
The road to Thimpu from the city of Paro in Bhutan. To reduce the import of bitumen in road construction in Bhutan, the government has partnered with local entrepreneurs to use waste plastic to blacktop roads across the country. Image: Shutterstock

Bhutan has come up with a new way to pave its roads: waste plastic.

As part of efforts to curb the use of fossil fuels and deal with growing amounts of plastic waste, the country plans to mix used plastic bottles and other waste plastic with bitumen to blacktop its roads.

The Green Road public-private project is expected to reduce the amount of bitumen imported from India by 40 per cent, and cut the amount of plastic waste going into landfills by 30-40 per cent, said plastic road entrepreneur Rikesh Gurung.

Although only 10 to 15 per cent of the mix used to pave roads is plastic, the project is expected to consume all the plastic waste in the country of over 780,000 people, Gurung said.

“We will use the plastic waste to build eco-friendly and durable roads in the country,” said the 30-year-old, who in October built an initial 150-metre length of pilot road in the capital, Thimphu.

“Recycling plastic waste and not burning (it) is the correct approach to protect the environment,” he said.

Now the country’s first waste recycling plant is collaborating with a private construction company, the Department of Roads and the municipal corporation to use the plastic mix to blacktop roads across the country, he said.

“We are monitoring the (project) and it has already been a success. We plan to replicate the same in other parts of the country,” said Chador Gyeltsen, the chief engineer of the Department of Roads.

Idea from India

Gurung came across the idea of using plastic waste in blacktopping roads when he was studying at Thiagarajar College of Engineering in the southern Indian city of Madhurai.

The city, in India’s Tamil Nadu state, had used the technology to pave some of its roads.

Gurung returned to Bhutan to work in a construction company to gain experience. This year he got a green signal from Bhutan’s Department of Roads - and financial support of $78,000 from Bhutan’s Business Opportunity and Information Centre - to launch the plastic roads project.

Backers say using plastic in the road mix will cut down on the cost of road construction, and help the country deal with the growing problem of how to dispose of its plastic waste.

“While the rest of the world is suffocating with their plastic waste, looks like Bhutan is going to face plastic waste scarcity,” wrote Bhutanese academic Passang Tshering in an online blog.

At a plastic shredding factory 20 minutes drive from the capital, waste is collected, shredded, melted and used to coat road aggregate before the stones are mixed with bitumen.

Gurung predicts the plastic roads will not require maintenance for at least five years, while traditional roads sometimes require yearly repair given the country’s mountain weather.

Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement spends about $4.2 million each year to fill potholes in Bhutan’s roads.

R. Vasudevan, dean of the Thiagarajar College of Engineering, said it remains to be seen whether plastic roads will suit Himalayan Bhutan’s high altitude, rain and cold winters.

Bhutan “might have to modify some procedures to suit the mountainous terrain,” he said.

But Ramalinga Chandra Sekar, dean of the college and an advisor to Bhutan’s Green Roads effort, said he is confident the roads will work. Plastic, he said, will make them stronger and more durable.

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