Reducing plastic pollution AND lowering the carbon emissions generated by manufacturing concrete. This is not a hyperbolic clickbait but the groundbreaking findings of a study published in the journal Waste Management.

While  MIT News reports that approximately 4.5 percent of the world’s human-induced carbon emissions are generated by manufacturing concrete, the stats on plastics are as dim. The Guardian reported figures that show that the annual consumption of plastic bottles reflects a growing trend, and is set to top half a trillion by 2021; the reality offsets the recycling efforts and jeopardise oceans and coastlines.

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Carolyn Schaefer and Michael Ortega are MIT students who explored the possibility of plastic-reinforced concrete as part of their class’s Nuclear Systems Design Project. They, in fact, fortified concrete by adding bits of recycled plastic from bottles, exposed to small amounts of harmless gamma radiations; the flakes are then pulverized into a fine powder which it is added to concrete. 

“Our technology takes plastic out of the landfill, locks it up in concrete, and also uses less cement to make the concrete, which makes fewer carbon dioxide emissions,” says assistant professor Michael Short.Image: MIT News

“Our technology takes plastic out of the landfill, locks it up in concrete, and also uses less cement to make the concrete, which makes fewer carbon dioxide emissions,” says assistant professor Michael Short.Image: MIT News

The implications of this successful experiment are noteworthy, as plastic bottles can be diverted from the landfill while the cement amount can be reduced; this is astounding if we take heed of carbon emissions connected to cement/concrete as well as the plastic leakage that is driving terrifying pollution rates all over the world. So far, Carolyn and Michael have determined that substituting 1.5 percent of concrete with irradiated plastic significantly improves the mixture’s strength. Moreover, students have reported that the concrete is fortified, increasing its strength. 

Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

These findings are opening the path to further research, we cannot ignore the outstanding possibilities of joining plastic waste with crushed concrete and bricks.

*Cover image: Courtesy of Jie Zhao/Corbis/Getty Images

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