Traditional methods of producing, storing and shipping goods by way of aluminum, glass or metals are no longer viable. The infusion of plastics and other synthetics into our daily lives has become the only sustainable answer, despite the material's bad reputation. From the automobile to the commercial airliner, from packaged foods to our busy roadways, the future is polymer.
Right now, the Biden Administration is putting together the American Jobs Plan, a strategy promoting U.S. investment to create millions of good jobs and rebuild the country's infrastructure. As part of the plan, highways will be repaired, bridges will be rebuilt, while ports, airports and transit systems are upgraded using an additional $621 billion investment into transportation infrastructure.
According to the White House, the current infrastructure is inadequate with 173,000 total miles of highways and major roads in poor condition, as well as 45,000 bridges. Delays caused by traffic congestion alone cost over $160 billion every year, while motorists are forced to pay more than $1,000 each year in wasted time and fuel.
The Department of Transportation estimates a repair backlog of over $105 billion, representing more than 24,000 buses, 5,000 rail cars, 200 stations, signals, power systems and thousands of miles of track.
But the plan won't stop there. The White House wants to invest into reliable passenger and freight rail service, create more jobs by electrifying vehicles and improve ports, waterways and airports.
What material will be a major component to all these improvements? If you guessed plastics, you are right.
Already, construction professionals prize the material for its easy installation, durability, cost-effectiveness, recyclability, energy efficiency and safety.
Following the plan's unveiling, the Plastics Industry Association issued a statement from the organization's CEO, Tony Radoszewski.
"Plastic is an absolutely essential material to addressing America's infrastructure needs," he said. "Whether its usage in pavement, pipes or electric vehicles, plastic creates jobs, protects the environment and improves our daily lives. We will aggressively pursue opportunities to work with the Biden Administration and members of Congress to highlight the value of plastic in rebuilding our nation's infrastructure."
Indeed, it will build better roads by mixing shredded and melted plastic bags, bottles and food wrappers to the asphalt base to improve the overall quality of public streets and roads, making them more resistant to water penetration and able to better handle temperature variations. Also, adding plastics to the base asphalt mixture is cheaper than using traditional materials. By reducing overall costs, plastics can create endless opportunities for road paving in developing countries.
Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a professor of chemistry at the Thiagarajar College of Engineering in India, said plastics reduce the cost of paving roads by as much as 15 percent, while also making roads 60 percent stronger than traditional ones, according to This Is Plastics, an online resource for the industry.
Whether recycled plastics are improving drainage capabilities and walkways through ultrastrong polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride or ensuring sustainable infrastructure solutions with a strong circular economy, the future is polymer.
Gretchen Philyaw is president of Magenta Technologies LLC, an Atlanta-based industrial automation company, and founder of USA Loves Manufacturing.