Recycled road treatment was used by the Victorian government to upgrade 3,900 square meters of road for the Fitzsimons Lane upgrade. Photo: Victoria’s Big Build

For a country as vast as Australia, roads are one of the most integral forms of infrastructure in everyday life. It is astounding to consider that modern road construction has not changed much since the process was first developed by Scottish engineer John McAdam in the early 19th century. The last real technological leap came a century ago when tar was added as a binder to increase longevity and stability for emerging motor vehicles – until now.

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The recycling and resource recovery sector holds one of the biggest opportunities and technological advancements for road construction in decades. The incorporation of certain recycled materials can increase the overall lifespan of a road, improve the resistance of road surfaces to cracking, and reduce maintenance costs and traffic disruptions.

Countries all over the world are recognising these benefits and are developing regulatory guidelines to deploy recycled materials in road base.

The employment and circular economy opportunities of rethinking roads could be monumental when you consider that recovered concrete and brick, glass, reclaimed asphalt pavement, crumb rubber, toner cartridges, and even plastics can all be recycled into road base. The 877,000 kilometre plus network of roads stretching across Australia could provide a stable and growing end market for some of our most over-represented waste streams.

As the world moves on this transformation, we need to start asking why our government procurement arms have hit the brakes on recycled roads.

Australia’s resource recovery and recycling industry contributes almost $19 billion in economic value while delivering significant social, economic and environmental advantages.

The sector is constantly striving to create stable end markets by developing innovative ways to incorporate recycled content into more products through advanced technologies and state-of-the-art applications – reducing carbon emissions and creating jobs in the process.

A report by Access Economics for the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts found that 9.2 of jobs are created for every 10,000 tonnes of materials recycled, compared with only 2.8 jobs created for sending materials to landfill.

Recycling comprises three essential processes: collection, processing and end markets. If any one element is missing, recycling cannot occur – and all three aspects must be economically viable for the industry to invest in genuine recycling outcomes. While we generally cannot control the volume of feedstock recovered in the collection process, the array of recovered materials that are able to be collected, processed and used in roads is in considerably stable supply through the recycling sector.

The National Waste Report 2022 estimated that from the 75.8 tonnes of waste generated in Australia for FY 2020-2021, 25.2 million tonnes (33 per cent) came from building and demolition materials. These figures indicate that there is a considerable supply of recoverable materials such as concrete, brick, and reclaimed asphalt pavement available for reuse in the road construction sector.

Even parts of what we put in our at-home recycling can be put back into our roads. The Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils estimated that using recycled crushed glass (RCG) gathered from kerbside collection across 16 Sydney councils could result in recycling about 93 million glass bottles per year for roads, without compromising high-value recycling of glass back into beverage containers.

Furthermore, modelling commissioned by the Australian Council of Recycling , found that using recycled plastic, tyre crumb, and glass in just two major road projects per state, could consume almost 2.3 million tonnes of recyclables bringing us closer to a circular economy and goals of the National Waste Policy Action Plan.

Despite a steady supply of feedstock for recycled road materials available, there are persistent barriers to uptake. The pervasive inconsistencies in local and state specifications on recycled material content in roads, including significant variations across jurisdictions in allowable limits of recycled content, have led to confusion and practical difficulties, fuelling a reluctance to embrace recycled materials in road construction projects.

Regulatory discrepancies, a lack of national leadership, and backward procurement policies centred on the tried-and-tested instead of innovative have created a misalignment between environmental protection policies and circular economy principles.

The regulations on risk and pollution are a barrier that needs to be overcome

Across Australia, there is a cultural undercurrent where recoverable resources are regulated as risk and pollution rather than prioritised as an economic opportunity and a necessary part of the circular economy supply chain. This disconnection is brought into sharp focus on our roads, where recycled content can result in longer-lasting, lower-cost infrastructure and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2022, the Australian Road Research Board  conducted a comprehensive review of using recycled materials in major infrastructure projects and  found that using recycled materials in roads and rail infrastructure has a significant environmental benefit in terms of reducing GHG emissions between 47 per cent to 98 per cent, depending on the type of materials used.

The same report found that the use of reclaimed asphalt pavement not only produced one of the highest GHG emissions reduction of 98 per cent, but had the highest economic benefit with a cost saving of 83 per cent compared with traditional virgin road construction materials.

Countries around the world are embracing the benefits associated with the addition of recycled materials to their roads.

In the Netherlands, recycled plastics are now being produced on an industrial scale for use in cycle paths, railway access, car parks and minor roads. The modular PlasticRoad panels from VolkerWessels construction company promise stronger roads, easier repairs, better drainage and improved access for service cabling.

Products such as these are spreading across Europe rapidly, but Australian applications – of which there are many innovative examples – are not making it through the government procurement processes in a sufficiently scaled form.

To build more circular road projects across Australia and contribute to a strong end market for recovered and recycled materials, it is vitally important that the Australian government engages with key industry experts to modify existing and create new performance-based Australian standards that harmonise the inconsistencies in existing specifications for recycled materials in our roads.

Industry must have a seat at the table when it comes to defining regulatory frameworks for resource recovery to achieve the appropriate balance between circular economy priorities and environmental protection, through robustness, objectivity, consistency, and transparency.

Suzanne Toumbourou, Australian Council of Recycling

Suzanne Toumbourou is the chief executive officer of the Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) the peak body for resource recovery, recycling and remanufacturing, committed to leading the transition to a circular economy through the recycling supply chain. More by Suzanne Toumbourou, Australian Council of Recycling

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