Saving dolphins by paving roads with plastic bottles rescued from the sea
The Caribbean city of Utila, in Honduras, has found a solution to prevent thousands of tonnes of plastic from going into the Atlantic: turn them into asphalt.
Dolphins can now dance freely in Utila’s turquoise waters without fearing that plastic will end up in their stomachs. The more than five million plastic bottles that each year make their way to the Honduran island, in the Caribbean department of Islas de la Bahía, will no longer finish in the ocean. The island’s authorities are now using the raw material to pave Utila’s streets, keeping the cetaceans, whose dance attracts 2.3 million tourists each year, safe from the plastic invasion.
The municipality’s innovative solution is a mixture of plastic bottles and cement, and aims to stop the environmental pollution that threatens not only the impressive dolphin sanctuary, but all the marine species currently living in the second largest reef in the world. "About five million plastic bottles arrive at the island each year, in addition to what the sea brings to the beaches,” explains Utila’s mayor, Troy Bodden, “so we decided to get rid of this plastic by shredding it and using it as a material for the concrete mix to pave our streets.”
Inspired by an idea that was first applied in India, Utila’s plastic roads are more sustainable, durable and cheaper than conventional roads. It was the Indian example, coupled with a tourist’s video of Canada's plastic roads, that inspired Mayor Bodden.
Bodden says 28 percent of the pavement formula comes from shredded plastic, which allows the municipality to save money that would otherwise be spent on cement. The pilot project was conducted on a 180-meter-long street located in the center of the island, which the mayor renamed Holland, and cost two million Honduran lempiras (USD 48,000). A second road was later paved – the 390-meter-long Lozano Street. To make the pavement, some 150,000 soft drink bottles were converted into 3,600 kg of shredded plastic, then mixed with cement and sand in a laboratory in the city of San Pedro Sula, in northern Honduras, to test its resistance to weight and weather conditions.
Mayor Bodden explains that the formula is certified and has the same consistency as regular asphalt. "We are studying its durability, to implement it in other projects such as paving stones," he said.
The mayor has launched other projects to fight against pollution. One is a municipal ordinance that prohibits the use of plastic bags and straws. Another is the collective cleaning of beaches and reefs, which brings together residents and the island’s diving centers. "This is just a sample of the creativity that Hondurans have. Now the plastic generated on the island is shredded and used as pavement, and it works very well, it doesn't crack or get damaged. With these initiatives we are preserving the natural resources and the future of our island," says biologist Fernando Argüello.
A creative way to get rid of plastic
The plastic raw material is collected from beaches and the recycling center, crushed to form balls, then taken to the construction site in huge black bags. It is not difficult to acquire plastic — the Motagua River, which originates in Guatemala and flows into the Atlantic, deposits enormous amounts of waste into 13 different municipalities along the way. This floating waste, which was captured by the lens of British photographer Caroline Power in 2017, was the final push that led Mayor Bodden and his team to start the recycling project.
"Utila is an incredible island. I am Honduran and the first time I saw it, it was love at first sight. I took many photos where you can see its majesty. What residents are doing to prevent plastic bottles from damaging its turquoise waters and destroying its fauna is something worth of praise," says Eduardo Elvir, a photographer who toured the city. Elvir believes waste is a fairly important problem to tackle because tourism and the regional climate generate a lot. "Locals have found a creative way to get rid of it," he says.
Utila is the smallest of the three islands that make up the department of Islas de la Bahía, created on March 14, 1872. Eleven km long and home to around 6,500 residents, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE), it does not have many roads to pave. But it can save money by reusing as much plastic as possible or transforming it into concrete blocks, which could become a product for export. Known for its coral reefs, numerous diving areas and impressive nightlife, Utila was chosen by lonelyplanet.com as one of the 10 best diving destinations in the world, a claim supported by the United Nations, which named it the best diving island in the Caribbean in 2017.
This article is being published as part of Earth Beats, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 18 news media outlets from around the world to focus on solutions to waste and pollution. In partnership with Agence universitaire de la Francophonie