S K Khanna

Since the past 65 years, about 8.3 billion tons of plastics have been produced worldwide, which is equivalent to 10,000 Eiffel Towers or 35,000 Empire State Buildings. But only 9 percent of all plastics gets recycled, while the rest ends up as trash. About 8 million tons goes into the ocean every year and the figure could rise to 500 million tons by 2020. Plastic has an adverse effect on human health, marine life, and the environment, as it pollutes our soil and water.

PlasticWaste

Flagging their concern at the recent International Plastic Bag Free Day, people resolved to eliminate plastic in their daily life. They asserted that the inventors of plastic should now devise ways to get rid of it. Enough is enough, said the environmentalists, with their message: Reduce, Recycle & Don’t Reuse.

Suggestions raised at the meeting included managing plastic waste, and utilizing it in a technologically feasible, economically viable, eco-friendly, and socially acceptable manner. In fact, scientists, technologists, environmentalists, and engineers all over the world are researching and developing effective disposal and utilization of plastic waste, for example, in the construction of infrastructure projects. Some of the recent developments in turning plastic waste into eco-friendly products and materials are given below:

Converting plastic waste into tiles

Delhi-based CSIR-NPL has developed an eco-friendly and patented technology to manufacture tiles from plastic waste. It has signed a license with a private firm to manufacture tiles on a commercial scale. The firm plans to set up a recycling unit at an investment of Rs 3.2 crore; it will have the capacity to produce 5 lakh tiles per month. NPL will help fabricate waste plastic into 3-60 mm thick tiles with aesthetic designs that can be customized. The product has been tested for flammability, water absorption, and mechanical strength, as per the standards set by the American Society for Testing Materials.

Turning plastic waste into building materials

Plastic Waste into Eco-friendly Building Materials

Indian developers are looking to their counterparts in Mexico for transfer of technology for converting plastic waste for use in housing projects. The selected plastic waste is grinded into flakes, placed into a mold, and melted once it is in a plasma state. Pressure is then applied on it to produce the raw material for construction products. To create a wall, around 6 kgs of plastic waste is transformed. Houses built with this waste material cost less than those made of concrete. This material can resist 3.5 kg per sqm of load as compared to 2.5 kg per sqm load by traditional building materials.

In Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), researchers have developed a building material made from cigarette butts mixed with plastic waste, bitumen and paraffin wax. The material is finding application in laying roads etc and in construction as a good lightweight composite material. It is capable of handling heavy traffic load on roads and it reduces thermal conductivity.

Utilisation of plastic waste in road construction

Road Plastic Waste
In India, plastic waste has been successfully used for constructing over one lakh km of roads in 11 states. These road stretches are expected to last for more than 10 years, as claimed by the national rural road agencies. Plastic road surfacing in the country is becoming popular as it makes roads sturdier and more heat resistant. The advantage of using plastic waste is that the melting point of plastic roads is around 66 C, compared to 50 C of conventional roads. It is also more economical at 8-9% lesser cost than a conventional road.

Harvesting plastic waste

The Kerala government has set an example for other states to follow with its innovative solution: it is using its fishermen to harvest plastic waste from the sea. Once harvested, the plastic material is shredded by a machine, and then used as an asphalt substitute or a supplement for in-road surfacing. The process has led to income-generation opportunities for the fishermen and for makers of plastic shredding machines in the area.

Making paper from plastic waste

The Khadi and Village Industries Commission has developed a scheme called REPLAN, wherein processed and de-structured plastic is mixed with cotton fibre rags, followed by multiple stages of treatment to produce pulp, which is turned into paper. Because of its strength and durability, this paper can be used to make paper bags, fine tissues, and other paper-based eco- friendly products. The plastic paper is currently being produced at a unit of KVIC in Jaipur, and more such units are being planned for localized production.

The way forward

Road Plastic Waste
Although some of these measures to convert waste into useable products may yet be baby steps, but scaling up efforts will certainly encourage a more scientific and large-scale disposal of waste. For example, New Delhi Municipal Council and the East Delhi Municipal Corporation are in the process of setting up plants for waste management of non-biodegradable materials like plastic. FMCG companies across the country are working on alternatives to reduce use of plastic due to mounting concerns over plastic waste and ban on plastic carry bags in many states. Although the Government has been trying to plug a ‘leaky’ system that allows rampant use of shoddy materials, the need of the hour is also a social awakening to induce behavioural changes in consumers.

There is also an urgent need to expand the development and application scope of recycled/retreated waste by evaluating the intrinsic potential of all kinds of waste, including the prospect of large-scale utilization, preceded by a preparation of relevant codes of use and practices for different applications.

The government has pledged to make our country free of plastic waste by 2022 and we should equip ourselves technologically and socially to redeem this pledge - right away.
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