The Green Road project, a new enterprise set up by a young Bhutanese entrepreneur, is paving Bhutan's roads using plastic—so much plastic that if all goes according to plan, road construction could soon consume nearly all of the country's plastic waste. For a nation going through the growing pains of modernization while at the same time maintaining a focus on environmental stewardship, this would be a welcome development.
Bhutan, a small Buddhist country on footsteps of the Himalayas between India and China, is home to some 780,000 people. For the people of this majestic land, the problem of plastic pollution is a relatively new one according to Passang Passu Tshering, author of the blog "PaSsu Diary: Journal of an Ordinary Bhutanese."
"Recently after landfills got overwhelmed we realized that plastic has become a problem even in our country," PaSsu told Fusion over email. "The best we could do is to resell the plastic waste back to India as scrap since we don’t have the technology to recycle it."
Now another Bhutanese citizen wants to reverse this dynamic and bring Indian technology to Bhutan in an effort to recycle plastic into road-building material.
Rikesh Gurung recently started the Green Road project, a public-private investment that mixes plastic waste with bitumen to create an aggregate compound called polymerised bitumen that is then used to pave roads. By doing this Gurung hopes to both reduce the amount plastic going into landfills by up to 40% as well as significantly reduce the amount of bitumen, a viscous petroleum product, needed for laying the roads.
Gurung has said that a ton of bitumen will be saved for every kilometer (0.62 miles) of road that’s 12 feet wide. He also predicts that the project will eventually consume all the plastic waste created in Bhutan, even while it only composes 10 to 15% of the road-paving mixture. The Green Road project has already set up Bhutan's first plastic recycling facility.
PaSsu, who has written about the project, sees it as having the potential to change the entire waste landscape of the country.
"I see this as a continuous solution to our growing problem," he said. "If plastic lasts forever, let it last forever as good roads."
PaSsu said that Bhutan imports "so many things," including a large amount of bitumen for roads.
"This is going to be reduced with introduction of Green Road, so the Green Road project is going to be a big national service," he said.
The government of Bhutan has authorized the Green Road project to remove plastic waste from landfills. Bhutanese leaders have supported ambitious environmental initiatives in the past, and in 2011 the country announced intentions to make the agricultural system 100% organic by 2020.
Bhutan is also the only country to shun the idea of gross domestic product (GDP) in favor of something known as gross national happiness. This innovative metric, first used in 1971, uses the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of both people and the environment to determine prosperity.
Gurung, who is 30, got the idea for recycling plastic waste in roads while studying at Thiagarajar College of Engineering in the southern Indian city of Madhurai. Gurung told the Hindu that the Central Road Research Institute, in New Delhi, India, will help provide guidance for the venture. India has built more than 5,000 miles of roads using this mixture of recycled plastic and bitumen over the course of the last 13 years.
As Reuters reported, Gurung also recently received help from Bhutan’s Business Opportunity and Information Center in the form of $78,000 of financial support.
Gurung told Reuters that he predicts the plastic roads will not require maintenance for at least five years, a solid duration considering the unforgiving mountain weather of the region can necessitate yearly repairs for many roads. Supporters of the roads think the plastic will make them stronger and more durable while others have concerns about how they will hold up to the rain, cold and altitude.
For now, the Green Road project set up its first demonstration in October along 500 feet of road near Thimphu, Bhutan's capital and largest city. The stretch used some 1,135 pounds of plastic waste that was collected from a nearby landfill.
In the future the Green Road project hopes to use PET bottles and hard plastic to make sewer covers and other drainage blocks, but for now the effort is relying primarily on lighter plastics such as plastic bags.
PaSsu puts this incremental progress along the road to success into perspective.
In school we were told plastic was among the worst things that could pollute our environment because it would not disintegrate in 800 years…The very first batch of plastic mankind produced, which was in 1862, hasn't yet disappeared.
From 1862 to 1970, plastic was seen as a magical material that could be crafted into a variety of shapes and substitute precious natural substances like tortoise shell, ivory, horn, and linen.
Suddenly in 1970s the world woke up and made the once savior of the natural world into the terror of the natural world…Human beings began using plastic in everything and everywhere without considering where it would land up at the end.
But in Bhutan we have our smallness on our side, today it may seem like we have plastic problem but if you have observed carefully, one moment you see lots of plastic bottles thrown around and next moment it's gone. It's just a matter of one good solution, because plastic is a magical element.