Friday, April 2, 2010

Hard-to-Recycle Item #7: Asphalt Concrete

There has been some recent speculation over whether recycling is the best answer for reducing our global carbon footprint. While I agree reduction and reuse are the stronger of the three R's, recycling makes economic sense while simultaneously slowing down the Earth's aging rate by cutting down on the use of limited virgin resources. This is becoming more and more evident in sectors of the economy you wouldn't originally think would be down, like transportation, specifically road construction. While this article isn't a spirited defense of recycling over other green practices (stay tuned for that, this one's supposed to be about asphalt), I will say that recycling creates profits out of what would be trash, creates six times as many jobs as landfilling, and cuts material acquisition costs for production companies anywhere from 30 to 50%. When reducing and reusing fails, recycling provides the safety net for materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill, or worse...

As the green paradigm shift begins to be actualized, many industries are realizing the economic and environmental benefits of recycling. If we must make something, we should defer and prefer to defer to making that item with recovered materials. The haunting notion of necessary evil seems to reoccur throughout America's history: indigenous displacement, Hiroshima, the death penalty, defense spending and every war we've fought, preemptive strikes, voting for a major political party, etc. In an overwhelming amount of the cases, the situation could have been avoided through more constructive solutions, but the reactionary political machine and special interests of groups within that machine spun the necessity of action as greater than inaction. With the recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United essentially granting corporations the same rights as individuals, this trend is even more disturbing.

Recycling is not a necessary evil; it's necessary but not evil no matter where you stand on green issues, no matter how much you hate the smell of wet cardboard. My point is that if we must grow as part of our national economic stability, we should do so in the most sustainable, efficient and organized ways possible. This isn't a call for Big Brother mandates and cap-and-trade legislation. Institutionalizing sustainability measures throughout industry on a volunteer basis is already steamrolling its way to corporate boardrooms and legislative bodies as simple matters of bottom lines and future existence. Let's explore one of these volunteer partnerships between industry and government more thoroughly through an example: the asphalt concrete industry (finally getting to the crux!).

For nearly 140 years, the United States has continually developed a system of paved roads and highways, which blows the accomplishments of the impressive (for its time) Incan road system out of the water. Nearly two million miles of roads exist in the United States with 94% of them paved by asphalt concrete (PtD in Motion). While the ever-increasing concrete jungle has decreased the amount of green jungles (there are more roads in our National Forests than the entire interstate system according to the National Forest Protection Alliance), and has led to unsustainable community development based around a car economy, readers will be surprised to learn that asphalt is the number one reclaimed material in the United States by tonnage and percentage, with a recovery rate around 90% responsible for recycling 100 million tons each year (PtD in Motion). Even with this staggering fact, according to Blount Construction, only 3% of roads are recycled, again underlining the immensity of our road system.

Asphalt is a petroleum product, a thick liquid that is a byproduct found in crude oil, which makes the importance of recycling it paramount. Incentives need to be increased for companies bidding on transportation projects that pledge to use recycled materials. The Nevada DOT alone has saved $600 million over 20 years using recycled asphalt (Roads & Bridges). The voluntary introduction of warm-mix technologies (rather than hot-mix) and better ventilation systems in work site machinery have improved working conditions and cut down on toxic fumes emitted at the work site. The higher the temperature asphalt is mixed at, the more fumes are produced, so cooler temperatures make it a cleaner product to use. Warm-mix has also proven to be a longer-lasting grade of pavement, cutting down on the use of resources and improving the quality of roads (PtD in Motion).

As Pick Up America makes its way along our extensive highway system, they can appreciate the fact that the surface they walk on is being continually upgraded through recycling, cleaner technologies and public funding. While many of us environmentalists would prefer communities in the future to have less roads, more green spaces and easier public transportation options, the necessary evil of road construction and improvement is vital to our current infrastructure. One wonders what future historians will note about our road system, whether it was too extensive and ill-advised or whether it was a solid and durable accomplishment for a fast-growing civilization becoming ever greener, or both.

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