Qld engineering company uses recycled plastic to reinforce concrete

A plastic bag drifts in the clear blue ocean as a result of human pollution. Perfect for ocean conservation theme. (This bag was collected and taken out of the ocean)

Queensland engineering firm Fibercon has developed a technology that enables it to use recycled polypropylene plastic for reinforcing concrete instead of the traditional steel.

Developed in conjunction with researchers from Queensland’s James Cook University, the technology has been used by Fibercon to recycle over 50 tons of plastic waste, resulting in reduced CO2 emissions, water usage and fossil fuels.

Since its first use in 2017, the technology incorporated into Fibercon’s Emesh product has been used by councils predominantly in footpaths, but also has applications from pavement concrete to channel drains, embankment erosion control, precast sewer and stormwater pits.

According to a report prepared for the Department of Environment and Energy in 2016, Australia averages 107kg of plastic waste per person each year. “So we have effectively recycled the plastic waste for 467 Australians,” explained Fibercon CEO Mark Combe.

Steel reinforcement in concrete – or rebar – was first introduced in the mid 18th century as a means of improving the tensile strength of concrete, and is now the most commonly used form of concrete.

With concrete use at approximately one cubic metre per person, Australia uses 25 million cubic metres of concrete per year. Conservatively, five per cent is footpath and light pavements – equating to 1.25million cubic metres. “If we replaced all the steel mesh in these pavements with Emesh, we would reduce our CO2 by 125,000 tons annually, and re-use 5,000 tons of waste plastic”, Combe said.

Worldwide around 1.6 billion tons of steel is produced per year, making steelmaking one of the world’s leading industrial sources of greenhouse gases. It is also heavily dependent on the use of fossil fuels and water. The process makes steel from iron ore by heating it with carbon – predominantly coal; carbon dioxide is produced as a by-product. Production of a ton of steel generates almost two tons of CO2 emissions, accounting for as much as 5 percent of the world’s total greenhouse-gas emissions.

By using the recycled plastic technology Fibercon has also seen a reduction to date of 1,000 tons of CO2, 200 tons of fossil fuels reduction, and 18,000 cubic metres  of water reduction. “According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency calculations, the reductions we have achieved in CO2 emissions, are the equivalent of taking 214 passenger cars off the road for a year,” Combe said.

“Plastic fibres in concrete have been around for twenty years – what is new about our product is that it is 100% recycled. The intention is to do something to give back, to close the cycle of useless waste,” he added.

With increasing recognition by Local, State and Federal governments of the need for sustainable building practices, Emesh is seen as a solution which contributes to the ever-growing quest for carbon neutrality and reduced environmental impacts.