Much has been written about the poor state of infrastructure in the world’s wealthiest nation. From its roads and bridges to waterways and rail systems, the United States has issues requiring hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to fix.
Innovation in the form of recycling or repurposing is being implemented as a cost- and environmentally-friendly way to improve segments of the U.S. infrastructure. Some companies and government entities are supporting the turning of outdated materials into useful pieces to the infrastructure equation. Amazon, for example, recently invested $10 million in a Closed Loop Fund project, which targets recycling infrastructure in the U.S.
“In this area of innovation, you consider a product’s whole life cycle, from cradle to grave,” Barry Breede, author of Transforming the Utility Pole and chief innovation officer at Koppers Utility & Industrial Products says. “It’s a closed-loop process, and the promise of these developments exemplifies the value and the validity of this kind of innovation.
“For smaller and mid-sized companies, corralling the resources to build a lasting innovation effort is not always an easy task. However, one potential upside is transforming how the business operates. You’re bringing value to the customers and, by contributing to the greater good through helping the infrastructure, you’re bringing value to the general public as well. A win-win.”
Here are five recycle/repurpose innovations that can assist the public infrastructure:
- Spinning old tires into better roads. Many states don’t have the funding to maintain and repair roads. Magdy Abdelrahman, a civil engineering professor at North Dakota State, is experimenting with using recycled rubber from scrapped tires to help preserve asphalt on existing roads. This would also help the environment; “tire dumps,” which contain roughly 300 million discarded tires annually, can pose environmental concerns.
- Building walls out of old utility poles. Old poles can be recycled and used as both agricultural and/or building materials. Fence posts and retaining walls are some of the common applications. “If a utility company is stockpiling whole poles, this could be a valid solution,” Breede says. “This is perhaps the most environmentally responsible wood disposal method – and at the same time it’s a boon for building.”
- Turning bottles into bridges. Places in Europe have been constructing bridges with recycled plastic for a decade. The U.S. has two bridges made of 100 percent recycled plastics. “It makes sense to replace worn-out wood with plastic,” Breede says. “Plastics in construction generally have a longer lifespan. Plastic costs more initially but in the long run it pays for itself.”
- Converting railroad ties and wood pallets into biomass fuel. “Untreated wood waste, as from pallets and reels you see all over America, makes for excellent biomass fuel,” Breede says. “Local and regional energy providers use biomass facilities as do energy-intensive private industries.” An energy plant in northwest Michigan, powered by renewable biomass fuel, produces much of it from used railroad ties.
- Drawing methane from landfills. Landfills are not a forgotten wasteland. Breede says landfill recovery gas (LFG), an option in which methane gas is captured from landfills, helps produce electricity while reducing harmful emissions. “The methane gas is an energy source to power turbines and, in turn, the turbines generate electricity for the grid,” Breede says.
“Seemingly mundane products can be the backbone of our infrastructure system,” Breede says. “They may be taken for granted and forgotten, but the job of the innovator is to think about the questions others don’t ask, and hopefully develop solutions.”