There are 223,000 miles of heavily trafficked roads in the United States. They slice through landscapes, connecting communities and economies, but also bisecting and contaminating nature. Transportation accounts for more than 25% of total U.S. emissions, and busy roads can produce up to five times the levels of pollutants (copper, zinc, chloride, nitrogen, and phosphorus) than rural roads. In short, roads are energy-intensive, dirty structures—but we can't live without them.
While scientists are working on cleaning up our cars so that they pollute less, it's also time to focus on what the cars are driving on. That's what's happening on a 16-mile stretch of Georgia’s Interstate 85 in Troup County, about halfway between Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama. Founded in 2014 with seed money from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, which promotes sustainable societies, the Ray—as the highway is nicknamed—is trying to be the world's first sustainable highway.
"We're asking how can we better design highways," says Allie Kelly, the Ray's executive director. "Not just to be less degrading to the environment but to improve the environment, as well as safety, beauty, logistics, and efficiency."
The project’s vision is to fully rethink the road: Keep the thoroughfare's vital components—asphalt, right-of-ways, billboards, fueling stations, and medians—but improve them with cutting-edge technologies, such as solar sound barriers, to make the corridor more intelligent and interactive.
Ray Anderson is often called the "greenest CEO in America" for his effort to make Interface, his billion-dollar carpet company, sustainable. Inspired by Paul Hawken's book The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson reimagined the very fiber of his business, a company he himself called "so oil-intensive you could think of it as an extension of the petrochemical industry." After his conversion moment, he changed the company's direction: making carpets from 100% recycled or renewable materials and ending the company’s dependence on oil. The rest of his days were spent advocating for restorative enterprises.