Whenever there is a thought about banning plastic, the solution offered is to recycle the waste. But, to what extent can the plastic be recycled and reused? What happens to the plastic that is recycled for the tenth time and cannot be recycled again? Is there a solution at sight?
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Yes, solutions are not too hard to practice. There are a few people to prove this. First is the story of Khan brothers. In 1996, when there was a growing demand for the ban on plastic carry bags in Karnataka, two plastic manufacturers from Bengaluru—Rasool Khan and Ahmed Khan—began to think about an alternative business. In the following years, the duo carried out a series of experiments and succeeded in using recycled plastic with bitumen to lay roads.
Plastic roads – can they solve the problem?
In the last 14 years, since the pilot project was first initiated in 2002, Khan brothers claim to have laid 3,000 km of roads using plastic in Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) limits. K K Plastic Waste Management Private Ltd is the only industry in the country with the patented technology to use plastic in road construction. In the years of their business, the Khan brother are only disappointed at how their technology has not been used to the fullest capacity and has failed to garner the required support.
“Using plastic in laying roads helps address two issues, namely, handling plastic waste and providing better roads. The roads laid using melted plastic last much longer than the normal asphalt. They are financially viable too. The cost of laying plastic blended roads is Rs 25,000 more (per km) than normal roads,” states K Rasool Khan, proprietor of K K Plastic Waste Management Pvt Ltd.
Decoding the business of using plastic for roads, he says the plastic required for laying 1 km road (single lane of 15 metres width) is 1 to 1.5 tonnes. “Assuming that BBMP produces 100 tonnes of plastic waste on an average every day, we have the capacity to utilise the same plastic waste for laying 5,000 to 10,000 km of roads annually. But, this is not happening because it is a herculean task for us to collect dry plastic waste from the city,” he points out.
Khan brothers who are ready to share the technology with others, believe that the technology can be efficiently used only if waste segregation happens at source. If all the dry plastic waste is collected appropriately, the large quantity of them can be used for laying roads across the State, Rasool Khan says.
Nalini Shekhar from Hasiru Dala says that plastic roads have not been successful for two reasons. One, for the logistic issues that the company which is into using plastic for road construction faced, and the other being a concern from people over toxic substances emitted while heating plastic in high temperature.
However, according to a report on Economic Times, the road developers now have to mandatorily use plastic waste in the bituminous mix while constructing roads around any city that has a population of 5 lakhs and above. This is a rule mandated by Central government.
Energy from waste plastic
Another solution that has been recently in the news is to convert plastic waste to energy. A city-based Aditya Recycling Machines provides technology assistance to develop plants that convert plastic into fuel oil and carbon black. Waste plastic is indirectly heated in low temperature of about 350-450 degree celsius to extract the oil. Fuel oil is widely used in boiler factory, cement, steel and glass factories.
But the technology is yet to gain acceptance in Karnataka says, Prasanna Datar, CEO of Aditya Group. “The fuel oil extracted from plastic has good market in foreign countries and is also widely used in Gujarat. All types of waste plastic could be used to make fuel oil. Setting up a plastic waste to energy unit costs around Rs 46 lakh and it has low operation cost. Everyone talks about plastic problem, but nobody is ready to invest on the solution,” Datar says.
However, this too requires dry plastic waste that has been segregated at source.
Another way of converting plastic waste to energy is to use it in waste to energy plants. Earlier attempts to introduce waste to energy plants in Bengaluru have failed due to the pollution issues. New waste to energy plants have been commisioned by BBMP but they need strict segregation of waste at source.
No takers for low grade plastic
Plastic recycling is not about technology, but is all about economy, opines Hasiru Dala Founder Nalini Shekhar. Hasiru Dala is an NGO which is into collecting dry waste in Bengaluru and handing it over to recyclers.
“The last one year has been disastrous for the plastic recycling industry, with some industries closing down and many of them running under loss,” she says. The reason is falling crude oil price in the global market. Crude oil is a major component used in making plastic. With the fall in crude oil rates, virgin plastic is now manufactured at a lower price. Due to this, the market is preferring virgin plastic over recycled plastic,” she adds.
Substantiating the same, she says a few months ago plastic carry bags were sold to recyclers at Rs 3-5 per kg, whereas now it has come down to zero. Waste PET bottles which were sold to recyclers for Rs 38-40 per kg, are now sold for Rs 18. “Of all the plastic waste that we collect, there are no takers for low grade plastic and non-recyclable plastic like flexes which is about 15 to 18 per cent. We used to sell these multi-layered plastics to a cement factory which too has been shut down. Now we are selling them to units that convert plastic to energy. All these are not great solutions, they are only interim solutions,” Nalini says.
“Since the plastic collection and recycling is financially not viable at present, we are exploring other options such as collecting coconut shells to be used in biofuel industry,” Nalini explains.
Right now the proposal is to ban the low grade plastic that is of no use to anyone, recycling which will be costlier. The types of plastic that will be banned are plastic carry bags, banners, buntings, flex, plastic plates, plastic cups and plastic sheets, irrespective of thickness.
Greens bat for complete ban
While the plastic manufacturers are striving hard to stop the plastic ban, environmentalists on the other hand have pressed for a complete ban.
Leo Saldanha, co-ordinator of Environment Support Group (ESG) has termed the draft note on banning a few plastic products as mere “tokenism.” Plastic menace will not stop until and unless all plastic-based products are banned, he opines.
According to him, plastic used in packaging industry causes the biggest problem. Real issue is with using plastic for packing food products, drinks etc. The notification in its current form does not mention about banning those plastic products, he observes. He also highlights the need to ban the production and use of thermocol, since it is ecologically more hazardous than plastic.
‘Ban is good, but there are things to be taken care of’
Sandya Narayanan from Solid Waste Management Round Table (SWMRT) says that plastic banning is a better solution than recycling it. However, she expresses apprehension over the effectiveness of the ban, considering the level of information and education that has to be imparted to the public and retailers.
“With a large percentage of Indian retailers being small time vendors, an awareness has to be created among them to deal with their customers who ask for plastic carry bags. Big retailers may be easily aware of the issues revolving around plastic ban and hence may switch over to alternatives quickly, but the same is not the case with small vendors. A small shop keeper or a cart vendor might end up facing financial issues while replacing plastic with other alternatives. It may impact his business too. All these factors need to be considered while implementing the ban,” Sandya says.
She is also apprehensive about other harmful alternatives entering the market while replacing plastic. There are chances of China jute bags (non-woven polypropylene bags) entering the market as a cheap alternative. It is non-recyclable and is no better than plastic. Hence, caution should be taken to prevent the entry of more dangerous alternatives to plastic, she warns.
She adds that impact of the plastic ban is a complex issue which should be seen from different perspectives. “The system will break down slowly and it cannot happen overnight. The ban should be based on ‘polluter pays’ principle. The users will experience an incremental expenditure with the ban of certain plastic products. Overall it is a good thing to do, but has to be done after taking a lot of precautionary measures,” she concludes.
Coming up in the next part: Plastic ban will create new jobs in various sectors