Many Europeans recently watched news images of the Italian city of Naples being stunk out by its own household rubbish. The scenario seemed hardly believable, a European city in the 21st century which could not deal with its own waste safely and a crucial public service in the grip of mafia.
Extreme as the case seemed, however, many local authorities around the world identified with Naples' plight more than might be expected. After all, says Juris Balodis, project manager at the Latvian Technological Centre, which is working on EUREKA project SANDPLAST, 'there are waste management problems in every country.'
'Landfills are filling up fast, but burning waste also produces greenhouse gases.'
Since alternative forms of waste disposal, such as incineration, are not popular and have environmental implications, European and other developing countries are making efforts to recycle more rubbish such as aluminium, glass, paper and plastic. Polymer waste such as plastic bottles, cartons and yoghurt pots are increasingly recycled. Experts say at least 25 percent of polymer waste is unsuitable for recycling because it is too dirty, contains mixtures of various types of polymers or often because it is economically unprofitable.
Landfills are filling up fast, but burning waste also produces greenhouse gases.
Latvian Technological Centre
Researchers at the Institute of Polymer Mechanics at the University of Latvia asked themselves whether it was possible to develop a way to recycle more polymer waste. Balodis says their research led them to a technique to turn thermoplastic polymer waste into a binding substance which could then be mixed with other materials such as sand to produce polymer concrete products without using cement.
One of those researchers, Valdis Leitlands, thought the technique, which is now patented, had commercial potential. He founded the spin-off company Partneris L.V., based in Riga, to develop new building products from polymer waste.
Partneris L.V. then turned to EUREKA to find partners who could help them tap into the whole European market and beyond.
EUREKA helped put Partneris L.V. in touch with the Spanish company Hormigones Uniland, which produces 2 million cubic metres of ready-mix concrete a year, to help with testing products developed from the technique and to identify markets. Partners from Lithuania also joined the project.
'Because Latvia is a small country it is important to us to explore markets abroad,' says Balodis. 'The Spanish partner knows the markets well.'
So far, the partners, which began the project in January 2005, have developed the technology and applied it in Latvia to produce polymer concrete pavement bricks and in Lithuania to produce a form of light-weight concrete with excellent insulation properties.
This polymer concrete absorbs less water so it is very good for resisting temperature variations like freezing. It is ideal for outdoor use like street furniture and making borders on streets.
Latvian Technological Centre
'The polymer concrete bricks look like ordinary bricks made from cement,' says Balodis. 'But this polymer concrete absorbs less water so it is very good for resisting temperature variations like freezing. It is ideal for outdoor use like street furniture and making borders on streets.'
SANDPLAST's partners think eventually their bricks will be cheaper than ordinary bricks, meaning the environmental processing of polymer waste could finally become economically profitable. The partners want to sell the technology to waste management firms and manufacturing companies which generate large amounts of polymer waste. Market research by Uniland has helped to identify potential markets for the machinery and the products it can produce.
Balodis says there are still challenges to be overcome to make SANDPLAST a commercial reality. 'At the moment production is 3 bricks a minute and we need to increase that by 10 or 20 times,' he says.
However, the partners feel well on their way to a green breakthrough, the kind that might just give a little hope to the average resident of Naples.