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Turning plastic waste into building blocks

When we hear the word “plastic”, we tend to think of environmental pollution, vulnerable marine life and impending global catastrophe. But, did you ever consider that plastic can be transformed into a highly effective and extremely durable building material? From composite lumber to plastic roofing tiles, insulation and even plastic-based bricks, recycled plastic is being utilised as building materials more and more around the globe.

South Africa is turning plastic waste into building materials

The Centre for Regenerative Design and Collaboration (CRDC), a South African design centre, is fine-tuning a process for transforming discarded plastic waste into a durable construction material. They are transforming disposed plastic products into brick-like blocks that can be used for building. These bricks, named EcoArena PRA (PRA stands for “pre-conditioned resin aggregate”), offer an innovative solution to South Africa’s plastic waste problem.

In order to create the EcoArena blocks, plastic waste is ground up into small particles and then mixed with a cement-and-sand mixture. This creates a highly durable, water-resistant brick that has the potential to completely transform the building industry. 

The process is cost-effective and benefits the environment as plastic items are upcycled, so reducing the amount of plastic ending up in South Africa’s landfills. It is estimated that South Africa currently only recycles 21% of the 1.5 tonnes of plastics consumed annually. The remaining 79% will mostly end up in landfills and the ocean.

EcoArena blocks being tested in the Western Cape

At the moment, two big cement manufacturers in the Western Cape are testing EcoArena blocks. A Costa Rican company called Pedregal has successfully used similar plastic bricks in construction projects before, and the The Centre for Regenerative Design and Collaboration is working closely with Dow, a US chemical manufacturer, to develop the EcoArena blocks – leading the way in the upcycling of plastic waste products.

“We plan to start by using the Costa Rican model to launch in the Western Cape, whereafter we will roll out the project country-wise,” says CRDC chief executive officer Don Thompson. “There is an established and sophisticated cement industry in South Africa. There is also an urgent need to create jobs, to clean up the environment and create housing,” he adds.

Thompson said that EcoArena blocks are between 8% and 16% lighter than standard cement blocks. They are also 10% stronger. The fact that these blocks are lighter than conventional ones will have a positive impact on transport and construction costs.

Plastic building blocks support a circular economy

EcoArena plastic building blocks could soon become a common building material for local construction companies. It has the potential to cultivate and foster relationships between the waste management sector, cement manufacturers and contractors.

Plastic building blocks such as EcoArena embody the very essence of a circular economy. By its use, the construction industry is assisting the plastic industry in solving a waste problem – plastic is turned into a raw material that can be utilised for any form of construction. In addition, these building blocks have excellent thermal properties and are as resistant to fire as normal concrete blocks.

“Using plastic in bricks allows us to conduct our business in a more sustainable manner. It also helps us to solve one of the biggest problems human beings have created – that of plastic contamination,” says Pedregal sales and marketing director David Zamora.

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