There was a time when holes in the road featured all over the front pages of the newspapers. They gave rise to jokes, caused accidents to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, set off citizen protests and were often weaponized for electoral and political battles. Many people wonder how the problem could be overcome? The answer is very simple … by following a virtuous example from Italy that is conquering the world.
The holes in the road surface also set me wondering about the origin of the problem: is it bad management? Or bad investments? And – above all – is there a solution?
A chance meeting with those who have been working on solving the problem for years made me look down at the roads and pavements I use and set off in search of information.
The gray mantle on which we walk, pedal or drive every day is made from a compound of inert materials, called ‘aggregates’, of various sizes, which are mixed with ‘binders’ such as bitumen. It is the different percentages and dosages of these elements that affect the quality and, consequently, the resulting surface’s resistance to weather conditions, resistance in terms of wear and tear and the duration of the road surface. But the various combinations have different impacts too – not only in terms of cost but also in terms of their impact on the environment, not to mention their public health impact.
According to the Marsh 2020 Report and data from the Luigi Guccione Foundation for Victims of the Road, 6 out of 10 Italians say they have risked being involved in an accident due to potholes, cracks and bumps caused by the lack of adequate road maintenance. 54% of legal claims relating to third party liability are also attributable to issues related to the road surface. Improving the condition of our roads is considered a priority by 87% of citizens interviewed during the research conducted by the Foundation.
Can roads be made to have a longer life span and be more environmentally sustainable?
Mariella Giannattasio, CEO of Iterchimica, the company founded in 1967 by her father Gabriele, has no doubts. “The reality is we already have a solution: in order to overcome the issues that had been identified we added hard recycled plastics to graphene.” What now seems child’s play is in fact the result of a long and innovative six-year research project, funded by the Lombardy Region and developed in collaboration with, among others, the Bicocca University in Milan. The studies led to Gipave: a product as small as a coffee bean, but which has ‘paved the way’ to nothing short of a highway revolution.
“We started with a problem and we set out to find a solution”, explains Ms Giannattasio. The starting point was the need to find a use for the large amount of plastics that were being sent to the waste-to-energy plant, causing an increase in harmful emissions to the environment.
“In the end we found a solution that made all that plastic useful again.”
When combined with bitumen, in fact, the plastics form the core of Gipave, the new product which is at the cutting edge of asphalt technology. Because of its structure, this product allows roads to have a lifespan more than double that of those built in the traditional way, reducing maintenance and therefore management costs. In addition, the Bicocca University has calculated that emissions from the production and maintenance of the new product are reduced by 70%. That represents a benefit for the environment estimated in the order of 200 tons of CO2 for each kilometer of asphalt built with Gipave.
There’s also an additional element: Gipave roads are 100% recyclable: each element can be reused, reducing the need for the extraction of new raw materials and the use of first-use bitumen. In addition to the sustainability benefits, the impact on society is also positive, thanks to the road surface’s improved resistance and the reduction in potholes and disruptions.
An educational exemple
After its initial use in Rome, where the first stretch of road in the world containing Gipave was built in 2018, today this material has been tested and experimented in 11 test sites throughout mainland Europe and the United Kingdom. In 2019 the runways of the airports of Rome and Cagliari were added and in 2020 Gipave was used in the paving of the new San Giorgio Bridge in Genoa. The excellent results in terms of road surface sealing and in terms of environmental protection have paved the way for this ‘made in Italy’ product to be put to numerous uses all over the world. And they have earned Iterchimica two licences, one for the reconversion process of plastics and the second for the final product.
For every kilometer of Gipave road surface, the first project in the world to have made it possible to re-use hard plastics, 20 tons of what would otherwise have been non-recyclable materials are used: children’s toys, benches, bottles and bins. These are collected in special boxes set up in town squares, with the local councils being supported in the recovery and disposal work involved.
“Sustainability and the challenge of protecting the environmental have always been part of the culture of our company,” says Mariella Giannattasio who recalls the history of the family business: “Iterchimica came into being in the years of Italy’s economic boom, when investments in infrastructure were essential for the growth of our country. It was necessary to respond quickly to the needs dictated by an ever more motorized society.”
At a time when sensitivity to environmental concerns wasn’t the top of most people’s agenda, the Bergamo-based company was already engaged in developing products that improved roads and pavements by using high- performing asphalt to reduce the maintenance requirements. Our philosophy is to create an ever greener and more high-tech ground surfacing”.
But what are the limits of this project?
“It is not the production or the use of Gipave that limits our expansion,” explains the CEO. “The limits of this project are more bureaucratic: despite the numerous trials and the excellent results, there are still no formal guidelines set into regulation.” Basically, in order to transform the research and tests carried out into concrete resources, we need the recycling system and the reduction of environmental impacts in the road sector to be regulated by proper standards. Today in Italy there is still no “Minimum Environmental Criteria”, for which many companies have been waiting for years.”
There is also the problem of the fragmentation of road network management. “In Lombardy alone, where about 70,000 kilometers are managed by local and regional government administrations, there are more than 1500 contracting authorities.”
To overcome this problem the various regional and local administrations within an area need to learn to work together as a network. Also needed are clear guidelines to regulate the boundaries of the product and the question of intended use. They need to look at providing adequate training for those who will use the products coming onto the market following the research, i.e. local administrations, road users and highway managers.
In this way, the funds provided for by the National Recovery and Resilience Plan could be better used, putting more emphasis on the green agenda
Prospects for the future?
“We are already working on a new technology that will make it possible to completely recover and reuse, without applying heat and therefore without having a negative environmental impact, 100% of the material recovered from old roads and pavements”.
This technology – which is called Iterlene ACF 1000 HP GREEN – was recently used to create two sections of cycle path in Rome and in the future it could be used for the Grande Raccordo Anulare delle Bici – the planned cyclists ring road round the eternal city. The next stop will be Milan, as part of the Biciplan project: 750km of cycle corridors around the city and its suburbs.
Meanwhile research is also progressing in collaboration with the Spanish University of Cantabria: “There we are involved in the NEMO project which aims to find innovative solutions to reduce noise emissions on the road.”
NEMO’s goal is a completely innovative remote sensing technology, which is able to measure the noise and emissions of individual road vehicles (and trains). It will be tested in various European cities to try to improve air quality and reduce the damage caused by noise emissions that are harmful to health, as reported by the World Health Organization. In recently published research, the European Environment Agency found that 50% of the inhabitants of urban centres in the EU are (sometimes unknowingly) exposed to levels of noise pollution that exceed the permitted limits, exposing them to the risk of ischemic heart disease, constant annoyance, sleep disturbance and even premature death.
“To lower the decibel level, we are working on reducing noise from electric vehicles, looking at reducing noise through tyre technology but above all on the development of a type of asphalt which can absorb noise. In this field Iterchimica is at the forefront. We have made available to NEMO our ITERSILENS technology, which allows us to mix into the asphalt bitumen a solution prepared with powder obtained from rubber recovered from tyres at the end of their useful life, and this new product can absorb vibrations and noise considerably.”
My journey led me to discover a multifaceted, versatile, technologically advanced world where solutions and technologies keep pace with social, economic and environmental needs. Where some enlightened companies invest in research to find adequate answers to the requests coming from citizens and international organizations.
But in order to spread the good news, this industry needs regulatory support to facilitate its use and create the conditions for the various players in the field to work together across the country.
Translated by Ronnie Convery
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