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Live Labs Blog: Cumbria’s drive towards a circular economy

12 March 2021

In this month’s blog, we discuss the Live Labs approach to a circular economy and Matthew Waning, Cumbria County Council’s Project Lead, discusses Cumbria’s ‘Plastic Roads’ project.

In a society that is ever more conscious of the environment, our Live Labs have had to consider the sustainability of their projects from the outset.

Many have been at the forefront of digital technology – installing sensors that integrate with decision making and smart systems to improve community services or traffic management. Inevitably, this technology will increase efficiencies, reduce costs and improve safety, but importantly, it will also reduce the carbon footprint within the communities where it is deployed. 

Some of our Live Labs are taking this one step further and capitalising on technology that is already integrated within our communities, e.g. CCTV and mobile phone networks. Giving this pre-existing and pre-installed technology a second important function will maximise its potential and eliminate the duplication of materials and resources. 

Integrating digital systems and maximising the use of existing assets are critical factors in facilitating a circular economy, where eliminating waste, regenerating natural systems and recycling materials are key principles.

Out of all the Live Labs, Cumbria has been the most focused on enabling the circular economy. With partners MacRebur, it is taking a material at the very end of its life and giving it new purpose.

The concept behind the Cumbria Live Lab is very simple. Some bitumen is removed from the asphalt that is used to lay roads and replaced with an additive, developed and produced by MacRebur. The additive is made from end of life plastic that cannot be recycled and would otherwise have ended up in landfill or been incinerated. As a result, waste and carbon emissions are reduced, with the potential additional benefit of constructing better and cheaper roads.

In traditional highways construction, bitumen is used as a glue-like substance to bind with sand, gravel and crushed rock. Water cannot seep into and damage the road surface easily because it is a waterproof material - it is so effective that most roads in the world are constructed with bitumen. However, although not burned to produce CO2, bitumen is a crude oil product and therefore, not a sustainable material. Replacing part of this bitumen with waste plastic is an innovative solution, and the Cumbria Live Lab team is working with its partners to test and study the quality of the new mixture in its application.

Testing and analysis to understand both the long-term and short-term effects of using waste plastic in roads is underway. Although most testing processes are no different from those performed on traditional roads, the team is monitoring runoff and discharge to ensure that no microplastics are leached. Although no leaching has been detected in previous tests, the Live Lab gives Cumbria the opportunity to confirm this independently. 

A seemingly small change to a traditional process is not only reducing waste in a safe manner but, reducing Cumbria’s waste disposal costs. If plastic roads are adopted as part of a national process, more efficient monitoring processes may be needed to understand what kinds of plastics are being disposed of across the UK. This could offer more opportunities to reuse and recycle other waste that would otherwise go to landfill.   

Matt continues

Embedding innovation into routine and planned maintenance can be problematic and this is sometimes used as an argument to restrict initiatives. However, with increasing demand on reduced infrastructure maintenance budgets, Cumbria has recognised that innovation is vital for the development of asset management solutions that meet stakeholder demand, and deliver the service within the agreed budget.

In Cumbria, the roads face some of the toughest weather conditions in the UK so the council is always keen to look at innovative ways to maintain the network. We are also fully aware that the highways industry has a significant environmental impact in terms of carbon footprint, use of oil-based products and the use of quarried material. Therefore, we believe it is incumbent upon us as an industry to seek new and innovative ways to mitigate this impact and using waste plastic in the road surface is something that we’ve been very keen to support.

According to the UN Environment more than 8 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since the early 1950s, and around 60% has ended up in landfill or the environment. Despite the environmental risks associated with plastics and packaging, the construction industry is the second largest consumer of plastic in the UK [Innovation Today, March 2019]. With that in mind, we identified an opportunity to investigate the benefits of using our plastic waste as an additive in the production of the bituminous pavement materials that we use in our highway maintenance works across all parts of the county’s highways network. The initiative was developed following an offer by a local SME company – MacRebur.

The Cumbria Live Lab is generating considerable interest both within the UK and internationally. The plastic additives appear to integrate seamlessly into traditional road construction with no changes in working practices or infrastructure. It goes to show the impact of a bright idea – one small change can make a massive difference and enable us to use our materials to their maximum potential.