Worldhack: How Zermatt Uses Plastic Waste to Fix Potholes
Zermatt not only impresses via its incredible views of the Matterhorn mountain and its high recreational value, but also stands out for its pioneering measures to protect the environment. Since 14 June, the municipality in the canton of Valais has been the first place in Switzerland to process recycled plastic to resurface a road junction. Using technology from award-winning Scottish firm MacRebur, the mechanism allows plastic waste that would have gone to incineration or landfill to be used to fill potholes.
Nick, co-founder of MacRebur, remembers: “I have always been an environmentalist since a young age, and I felt like that was an opportunity to make a meaningful difference.” Whereas conventional roads use bitumen to bind the rocks, limestones and sand, the new process allows us to replace some of the bitumen with plastic. “Polymers are a by-product in industry; they don’t have any home yet. Why not start using them?” he wonders, while conceding complications at the same time. “It’s difficult to turn a waste product into something you could use for construction. Quality is absolutely critical for us and the polymers need to be fully homogenised.” That’s one of the reasons why he appreciates the high level of environmental regulation in Scotland, which enables MacRebur to further process the plastic waste right after they have received it.
By now, MacRebur has constructed roads in the US, Australia, Turkey, Bahrain, Slovakia and New Zealand – and since June, also in Switzerland. “Like-minded people around the world want to get involved. That’s brilliant,” Nick enthuses. “Slovakia, for example, is very keen on trying new products, whereas we have got quite a conservative attitude. We can’t solve the world’s plastic problems, but we can take a little step.”
A similar story is told by Kirk Tinham. After working as a technician in plane industries, the young man moved to Zermatt, built up his own company that teaches people all about fly fishing, and shortly afterwards, a sports store for mountaineering equipment. “I try to be involved in projects I’m passionate about,” he says. Passion also drove him to cooperate with MacRebur. “We don’t need to produce plastic when we already have it. In addition, only few people know that we are already using plastic in many roads.” Living in Zermatt for six month and surfing in Bali for the other half of the year, Kirk first became aware of plastic pollution among the surfing community on the Indonesian island. “Back in Zermatt, I recognised that this could be a great product for the Swiss market and took the initiative to call the MacRebur office to enquire about distribution.”
Toby McCartney, CEO of MacRebur, also found inspiration overseas. During his stay in India, the engineer saw locals pouring waste plastics into potholes and burn it to fix them. After many trials, he found his own industrial method based on a specific asphalt mixture that contains shredded plastic waste.
On the question of why Zermatt is a good place to build a road with the help of recycled plastic, Toby answers: “Temperatures in Zermatt range from below minus 15 in the winter to up to around 30 degrees in summer. However, as our roads contain plastic, they are more flexible. This means they can cope better with the contraction and expansion caused by changes in the weather, reducing cracks and potholes.” Kirk adds: “Although Switzerland has a fantastic recycling collection system in place, more than 80 per cent of the collected waste plastics are incinerated rather than repurposed. With the Swiss being proud of their fresh air, this practice is particularly unpopular, but now, we have the potential to make use of the efficient collection system and reuse the plastic waste,” Kirk adds.
Already in the past, the tourist destination in the shadow of the Matterhorn have taken a green approach when it comes to infrastructure. Only accessible by train from the neighbouring village, Zermatt is car-free, the local transportation is provided by electric buses and taxis. And on the ‘Klein Matterhorn’, for example, the energy for heating and lighting is produced by a photo-voltaic system.
For the future, Nick wants to see MacRebur expanding into foreign markets: “The polymers need to be produced in factories across the globe. Our aim is not to have just one factory in Scotland but maybe 50 around the world.” Kirk agrees: “When we finished the road in Zermatt I felt like ‘hey, we fight’. We are still in the test phase in Switzerland: however, the long-term goal is to have factories over the whole country processing Swiss plastic waste. It’s just the right thing to do.”