Turning plastic pollution into building materials

EcoArena PRA building blocks used in construction of a home

South Africa has some of the highest recycling rates in the world. We recycle more plastic than many of the European countries, but what happens to non-recyclable plastic waste? Often it is sent to landfill, but a new process is being developed that can turn this waste into sustainable building blocks for construction.

The Centre for Regenerative Design and Collaboration (CRDC) is making progress in their quest to convert non-recyclable plastic waste into brick-like blocks for the construction industry. These blocks are called EcoArena Pre-conditioned Resin Aggregate (PRA). Their PRA has been tested and used in cement blocks, paving stones, pipes, kerb stones and ready mix at between 5% and 10% per volume of the mix.

They are made by incorporating regenerated waste plastic granules with a standard sand-cement mixture to produce a highly durable cement block. The EcoArena PRA blocks are strong, durable and water-resistant; perfectly suitable for construction. Turning plastic waste into building materials is a cost-effective solution to upcycling the waste that would usually end up in a landfill. 

Using a similar process, post-consumer and post-industrial expanded Polystyrene (EPS) has effectively been recycled into lightweight concrete bricks and screeds. Well-known buildings such as the Zeitz Mocaa Museum and the Table Bay Mall in Cape Town have been built using these recycled EPS materials. Several tonnes of polystyrene have been diverted from South Africa’s landfills as a result.

Similar building materials have been used in other countries

Other countries have also been experimenting with plastic-based building blocks. Costa Rica has already used the EcoArena PRA blocks in a number of successful construction projects. In South Africa, the CRDC is working alongside other chemical manufacturers and major cement producers to refine the building blocks. The building materials are currently being tested in the Western Cape.

“In South Africa, there is an established and sophisticated cement industry. Against this, we need to create jobs, we need to clean up the environment and there is an urgent need for housing. Our plan is to use the Costa Rican model to initially launch in the Western Cape before rolling out the initiative nationally,” says CRDC chief executive officer (CEO) Don Thompson.

This sentiment is echoed by Adri Spangenberg, CEO of the Polystyrene Association of South Africa. She says that the lightweight concrete bricks made from recycled polystyrene have been identified as a major source of entrepreneurship and employment by municipalities. Local governments are eager to see polystyrene recycling and trading hubs established in their areas to help create jobs and meet the need for housing. 

The EcoArena PRA bricks are stronger than conventional concrete building blocks. They are also lighter and more durable as they are not affected by moisture or water. They are already proving to be a cost-effective alternative to standard building materials, while reducing plastic waste in landfills at the same time.

EcoArena PRA building blocks are a viable alternative

Using plastic waste for the benefit of the construction industry is a viable method to deal with pollution and promote the growth of the economy. It makes both sectors (the plastics and the construction industries) more sustainable and it provides a profitable solution to excess non-recyclable plastic waste.

Creating building blocks from plastic waste and cement could be the start of a viable circular economy – a system whereby waste is fed back into the product cycle to promote reuse and keep the value of waste items. Instead of leaving waste to sit in a landfill, a circular economy uses it to create new products that can be resold for the benefit of the economy.

South African construction firms should embrace the use of sustainable products, such as the EcoArena PRA concrete blocks. Products such as this will foster good working relationships between various industries, such as the construction sector, plastics manufacturers and waste management companies. 

Critically, this is not just a solution for removing vast quantities of plastic from our environment and achieving the goal of zero-plastic-waste-to-landfill. For the concrete and construction industries it provides a viable economic and environmentally-friendly solution that will reduce their own carbon footprint too.

___

Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

For more news, updates and information on the South African plastics industry, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Plastics SA Editor