Plastic Man speaks out on disposal

Plan for the proper disposal of waste, says the retired yet still perseverent chemistry expert Prof R Vasudevan

October 22, 2018 04:51 pm | Updated October 23, 2018 04:23 pm IST

Prof Vasudevan at his lab in the college

Prof Vasudevan at his lab in the college

The Thiagarajar College of Engineering (TCE) in Madurai shelters three important things: India’s only Centre for Plastic Waste Management funded by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, stretches of plastic road on campus, and a quake-bullet-water-proof model of a toilet made with ‘plastone’ (plastic plus stone).

The credit goes to Prof R Vasudevan, a retired chemistry professor who has spent the last two decades researching and implementing the purposeful reuse of waste plastic. “Plastic is my resource,” he says, as we make our way to his lab, walking past heaps of plastic wrappers, discarded carry bags, and plastic bottles.

Madurai, Tamil Nadu, 17/10/2018: The Plastic man of India and Padmashri winner R. Vasudevan, Dean, Thigarajar College of Engineering, apply the technology for using waste plastic for road laying, in Madurai. Photo: R. Ashok

Madurai, Tamil Nadu, 17/10/2018: The Plastic man of India and Padmashri winner R. Vasudevan, Dean, Thigarajar College of Engineering, apply the technology for using waste plastic for road laying, in Madurai. Photo: R. Ashok

In the lab, he takes his seat on a swivel chair retrieved from the college junkyard years ago. Shredding and block-making machines, ovens, equipment that checks the weight, pressure and texture of his products fill up the room. He points to a rusted iron kadai by his side and smiles, “This is where the experiment began and continues.”

Eighteen years ago, Prof Vasudevan, who is also the college dean for extra-curricular activities, mixed bitumen with plastic-coated granules to lay the first-ever plastic-tar road. Jamboolingam Street in Chennai’s Valluvarkottam was his first experimental site in 2000, followed by Lenin Street in Kovilpatti, near Madurai. “Both stand strong,” he says.

So far, 1,00,000 km of plastic roads have been laid across the country using his technology, for which the college got a patent in 2006. “The technical know-how and guidance are free for anyone in the country who wishes to lay plastic-tar roads,” says the man, whose method to build all-weather roads earned him the Padma Shri this year.

Madurai, Tamil Nadu, 17/10/2018: The Plastic Tar road apply the technology for using waste plastic for road laying, by the Plastic man of India and Padmashri winner R. Vasudevan, Dean, Thigarajar College of Engineering in Madurai. Photo: R. Ashok

Madurai, Tamil Nadu, 17/10/2018: The Plastic Tar road apply the technology for using waste plastic for road laying, by the Plastic man of India and Padmashri winner R. Vasudevan, Dean, Thigarajar College of Engineering in Madurai. Photo: R. Ashok

Yet, the Plastic Man of India, as he is known, is disappointed with the Government’s recent proposal to ban single-use plastic. “Banning is not the answer,” he says, “efficiently managing the disposal and collection of waste plastic is.”

As per his calculations, India would require 100 lakh tonnes of plastic waste, if it were to use the plastic-tar technology to lay the 46 lakh-kilometre multi-lane roads that criss-cross the country.

“Plastic waste that is irresponsibly littered and can be used for laying roads is only 30 lakh tonnes,” claims Prof Vasudevan. He says the fault lies with the government, companies and people who do not dispose of plastic waste properly and allow it to choke the water bodies and channels. “A highly productive material like plastic earns disrepute due to human error,” he rues.

He advocates that people sell their domestic plastic waste to junk dealers, as they do with their old newspapers, and not throw it in the bins. Segregation has to be carried out at various levels. Plastic waste ought to be collected from every private and public place and the SHGs could be involved in collecting, shredding and selling it to companies that lay roads. “It will financially empower women, save the environment, and improve the quality of roads,” says the 74-year-old.

Counting roads
  • The Tamil Nadu District Rural Development Agency has laid 17,000 km of plastic road covering every district.
  • Salem is the country’s first officially declared town to lay a 350-metre plastic tar road in 2004.
  • A central government 2015 rule directs road developers to utilise plastic waste in road construction, within 50km radius of any city with a population of over 5,00,000.
  • Puducherry, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, and Arunachal Pradesh have adopted the plastic road technology.

Plastic, in Prof Vasudevan’s opinion, is an important invention. “It is impossible to eliminate plastic from our lives as it has become convenient for multiple uses,” he notes.

Single-use or disposable plastics, such as carry bags, wrappers and pet bottles are most commonly used. The three types of single-use plastics — polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene — he points out, are safe plastics and do not emit toxic gas when burnt. “The drawback is plastic does not decompose, and we are allowing it to strangle us by failing to manage it,” says the professor, who successfully converted the non-biodegradable waste into a coating over pebbles that bond with bitumen for road laying.

His idea of plastic roads germinated while watching a TV programme in 1999. “A doctor said that plastic dissolves in water bodies and causes pollution, and I rushed to my lab because I knew plastic is a product of petroleum and the doctor’s theory was incorrect. I mixed waste plastic with heated bitumen and coated the mixture over stone. It stayed strong,” he recalls.

History was slow in the making, however. The first two plastic roads that he laid went unacknowledged. The former president, Dr Abdul Kalam — whom he met at a college function — told him not to worry if people were not convinced with his idea and advised him to continue his work and lay plastic roads within the college campus. Between 2002 and 2004, three 60-foot roads were laid, and every new road laid at TCE now uses plastic waste.

What it takes
  • A normal road requires 10 tonnes of bitumen for each kilometre.
  • One km of plastic road requires 9 tonnes of bitumen and one tonne of waste plastic.
  • Each tonne of bitumen costs ₹60,000 to ₹70,000 and a plastic road saves that cost.
  • Each tonne of plastic waste is equal to 10 lakh carry bags.

Prof Vasudevan’s ongoing experiment with plastic has led to the creation of plastone — a stone block with plastic coating. He uses granite and ceramic waste or industrial slug with waste plastic to make plastone. Each block measures two feet in length and one foot in width and consumes 300 carry bags and six PET bottles. The non-porous plastone can be used in flooring, for raising compound walls and as an effective liner for water bodies.

Six months ago, he built a model toilet using plastone blocks that require no cementing and can be dismantled and moved to different locations. It takes two hours and half a tonne of plastic waste to build one 8x4 sq ft plastone toilet. He has offered his technology to build two crore toilets under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. “To do it, 100 lakh tonnes of plastic waste will be required,” he says.

The patented technology is now being used in the Netherlands, while he offers every innovation free to the Government of India. “My dream is to replace all existing and pot-holed roads in India with plastic-tar,” he says.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.