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The Island Paradise Where the Roads Are Made of Plastic

Utila, a Honduran island in the Caribbean Sea, is transforming the plastic trash that washes up on its beaches into material used to build roads, an increasingly popular use for marine pollution.

Written by Monica Pelliccia Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A pristine beach on Utila Island in January. During the fall rainy season, plastic waste frequently washes up on the sand.Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

UTILA, Honduras – With its picture perfect turquoise waters, the Caribbean island of Utila, part of an offshore archipelago called the Bay Islands, is a tropical paradise. But its beautiful beaches can be strewn with trash during the fall rainy season, when litter and other refuse is carried by the tides.

Images taken by photographer Caroline Power of enormous masses of floating plastic garbage in nearby seas off the island of Roatan generated international headlines in 2017, describing the endless floating trash as “shocking.” Sea turtles have problems nesting, residents see dolphins playing with bags that look like jellyfish and plastics threaten the health of the nearby Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second largest coral reef system and one of the most biodiverse coral areas on the planet.

To Utila Mayor Troy Bodden, it’s expected. “Thirteen municipalities and four hospitals throw all the garbage in the Motagua River that merges with the Atlantic Ocean,” he said, referring to a 482-kilometer-long (300 miles) Guatemala river that forms the border between the two nations in its last miles before entering into the sea.

Troy Bodden, mayor of Utila, walking on Calle Holland, the first street in Honduras paved with concrete made with recycled plastic. (Monica Pelliccia)

There are no easy solutions for a tiny island like Utila, a top diving tourism destination, but now it is getting creative with its waste by trying to put some of it to good use. At the end of 2017, the town finished building its first road made partly of plastic and is now concluding a second.

A sea lover and ship captain who says he descends from a famed pirate, Bodden was inspired when visiting tourists showed him a video of roads paved with plastic in Canada. Plastic has been increasingly being used as a road construction material around the world in recent years. The India state of Maharashtra, for example, has already laid 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of road using 5,000 metric tons of plastic, and plans to increase those numbers by 10 times in coming years.

Utila, at only 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) long, can’t put down that much road but it can save money by reusing every small amount of plastic it can.

The construction of Calle Lorenzo, made with 28 percent recycled plastic. (Monica Pelliccia)

Millions of plastic bottles – equaling almost the weight of one whale shark, the biggest fish in the ocean and one of the inhabitants of Utila’s waters – arrived on the island by boat last year, according to Bodden. Rosalia Argueta, environment coordinator of the municipality of Utila, said more than 5 tons of plastic were collected for recycling, both from beach cleanups and from homes, hotels and restaurants. Sustainably recycling all of this plastic, however, requires shipping to a mainland recycling plant, located more than three hours by car from the closest port.

“Roads paved with recycled plastic could be a sustainable solution that permits us to save the cost to separate, clean, compact and send the bales to the mainland,” said Bodden. He began by acquiring funding from the Free Tourist Zone of Bay Islands, a government institution, to spend $5,000 to acquire a machine to grind up the plastic.

Intersecting the corner of Main Street, lined with tourist bars and dive centers, Calle Holland is now paved with a mix of cement, sand, gravel and 28 percent ground and melted recycled plastic. The formula had first been tested at a laboratory in Honduras to check its durability under weight and weather. The project used used 80,000 plastic bottles to pave the 91-meter-long (99.5 yards) strip.

A second road, Acceso a Calle Lozano, is now also being paved. Every Tuesday and Thursday, plastic is collected from the beaches and the recycling center. It’s ground into pellets and delivered in huge black bags to the road construction site.

A laborer takes ground recycled plastic to prepare concrete. Calle Lozano is the second street of Utila made with plastic. (Monica Pelliccia)

Eymi Yolanda Reyes Galeas, 28, is the engineer supervising construction. “Today, we are using 600 pounds of plastic (272 kilograms) to make the concrete,” she said. “We reduce the quantity of plastic wastes in the island, and we use it for a common good.” As she urges workers to wet the road, a few tourists walking by start to video the work after they learn about the project.

Bodden has plans to scale up the work. Building more road infrastructure, he said, is a priority for the largely undeveloped island. “Our next step will be to pave all the new streets with this formula,” he said. “Also, we would like to build benches, And why not start to export concrete blocks made of plastic?”

He leaves his office on an electric tuk-tuk to head to his house, located just at the corner of Calle Holland. It’s a name that reminds him that there are many parts of the world, including the Netherlands, where plastic is having a second life in urban construction. “My aim is to make a dent in the plastic pollution of our beautiful archipelago,” he said.

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