Recycled plastic used in Fort Eustis bridges

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

Recycled plastic can be used for an amazingly wide variety of purposes — but the support structure of a railroad bridge? Sounds incredible, but that’s exactly what Fort Eustis relied on in replacing two 60-year-old wooden bridges. The trusses, piles, pile caps and railroad ties are all made from a recycled structural composite of milk jugs, detergent bottles, old tires and plastic car bumpers.

The patented product, known as Recycled Structural Composite, was created by Axion International in New Providence, N.J., and is distributed by Innovative Green Solutions, based in Great Falls.

Mike Halvorson is regional operations manager for Reston-based Centennial Contractors Enterprises Inc., which built the new bridges. He was surprised when Army Transportation Corps officials at Fort Eustis suggested recycled materials for the bridge projects. “We were looking at a structure that needed to be able to support a 130-ton locomotive going 35 to 40 miles per hour, so, yes, I was absolutely skeptical,” he recalls.

NewsThat skepticism disappeared, however, when Centennial engineers closely examined the materials. They realized that a bridge built using the hardened plastic could not only be as strong as a conventional structure, but also offered a number of other price and sustainability benefits.

“When we cost-compared it to treated wood, the recycled structural composite material actually came in at 10 percent less cost than our conventional methods,” Halvorson notes. “It made the decision a no-brainer.”

What’s more, unlike treated lumber, the recycled material requires little to no maintenance to avoid deterioration caused by weather or wood-boring beetles. Maintenance is a major factor in bridges over saltwater and coastal marshes.
“We don’t have to use creosote or anything else to treat the structural elements, and wood bores don’t like the taste of plastic,” Halvorson explains. “So it’s cheaper upfront and on an ongoing basis.”

Centennial officials note that using recycled material for the Fort Eustis bridges kept 334,000 pounds of material out of landfills and 496 metric tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

The company now is building a plastic pedestrian bridge at Fort Lee outside Petersburg.

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