Paving The Path With Plastic Pellets Has Been A Patchy Affair So Far

 Paving The Path With Plastic Pellets Has Been A Patchy Affair So FarPotholes being patched up (Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Using plastic to make roads was an idea that was much praised, and promising. But more than a decade after the initial euphoria, we find that despite the interest shown by the states and their stated intent, the uptake has been slow.

A path-breaking invention took place 17 years ago that promised to change the face of India, not in one, but two ways: by helping to clear the plastic-waste eyesore and by make the roadways smoother, pothole-free and shinier.

We’re talking about the plastic-coated stones or pellets developed by Madurai’s Thiagarajar College of Engineering Professor R Vasudevan – what has come to be known widely as “plastic roads” – a technology that adds finely-shredded plastic to gravel to form plastic-coated stones, which when mixed with bitumen, helps build stronger and more durable roads. Killing the two birds of mounting plastic waste and poor quality roads thus became very possible with one ‘stone’, as the patented technology was given for free to the government by its inventor.

Media reports domestic and international heaped praised on this idea, developed in India. Pilot programs over the years, across Indian States, confirmed the efficacy of the invention. In recognition of the distinguished contribution for socially-relevant work by the inventor, Prof Vasudevan, the Indian government conferred on him the Padmashri award conferred him in January this year.

A convincing idea

The Professor had first tested his invention in 2002 in his college before approaching state officials.; That road, reportedly, is still intact, without any potholes or cracks. As news spread about this development via foreign media, the world sat up and took notice. International agencies lauded the solution that had originated in India, and other governments – China, Japan, UK, Germany, Bhutan and Nigeria, among others have been keen to implement it. And as per reports in the last one year, Dutch firm Volker Wessels is now using recycled plastic bottles to build roads.

Tamil Nadu was the first Indian state to build a road in Jambulingam Street, in Chennai, in 2002. Other states also began considering the idea beginning 2005-06: discussions began in Delhi and Goa, and beginning 2008-09, others like Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Meghalaya and Nagaland carried out experiments and sample constructions using the technology. The reports were all satisfactory, bordering on euphoric.

Figures as to the number of kilometers of roads that have been built using this technology vary – some reports say 5,000 km, some 21,000 miles (approximately 29,000 km) and there are others that claim 1,00,000 km. The World Economic Forum puts it at around 33,796 km of roads.

However, a state by state study, more than a decade after, and despite the interest shown by the states and their stated intent, shows that the uptake has been slow. Save for the forerunners, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, who took up the required measures and have a fairly decent record to show, most states have these roads only in patches – patches of a kilometer, sometimes half a kilometer, and sometimes even none. Even in the showcase-state of Tamil Nadu, a proposal in 2012 by the Chennai Corporation to pave 1,500 km of roads using plastic waste, did not take off for long, even though 40 plastic shredder machines had been bought for this. Later, though, and especially after the flooding in 2015, work was stepped up and 800 km of roads have been laid using 1600 tons of plastic, as per news reports.

Apparently, more was needed to prod the states into walking the talk, and actually taking this road less travelled. In November 2015, therefore, the Central Road Research Institute mandated plastic-blended roads for all National Highways up to 50 km from cities that have a population over five lakh. The Padmashri to the inventor in January 2018 would also serve as a reinforcement of the government’s desire and dictat. The government has also put up guidelines for the technology on an official website; also, the “plastic man”, Dr Vasudevan, has been available to clear doubts, even giving TED talks regarding the benefits and saying that he is ready to help out if the (state) government cooperates.

Reasons why states may be dragging their feet

States have been aware of this innovation and its benefits, and some had as far back as 2009 experimented with short stretches of 500 m or 1 km; yet, they have failed to build on the opportunity. Nagaland had built a 1kilometer road, for instance. Among the plausible reasons are:

One, inertia, since PWDs work through contractors who use their fixed methods, and there has been no pressing need to undertake this kind of reform. In fact, allegedly, in some cases it is road contractors themselves who are not interested in the durable roads, as that would mean less repair work over the years and hence, losses to them.

Two, corrupt officials themselves may not have taken the proposals further because contracts for road maintenance mean huge amounts of money.

Three, plastic segregation is a chore. We come to this later.

Four, fear of the unknown and being cautious about adopting any new technology too rapidly. For instance, in the case of Goa, the directorate of Panchayats had actually ordered machines for plastic shredding as far back as 2007, but questions had been raised on the practicality of the technology, financial viability and even the motives of the officers endorsing the technology, by other government departments and environment consultants.

Five, mistrust about getting the right mix of bitumen and plastic, and the fear of adulteration.

Plastic segregation and waste management first – Tamil Nadu’s story

The other reason could be that for this plan to succeed, waste segregation as a policy should have preceded the plastic mixing. Some states like Tamil Nadu have been able to make an industry out of rag-picking, mostly women, who have basic machines to shred the plastic. With plastic item thus shredded and available to be added to the bitumen, the task is easier. Karnataka, too, has been very active in waste segregation, and hence, businesses have formed around plastic shredding; this explains the widespread laying of plastic-blended roads there.

The end-to-end-success case study of Himachal Pradesh

Himachal Pradesh was one of the first states to execute the idea successfully. The experience of the state, which began building plastic-blended roads in 2010, demonstrates that not only must sustainable plastic waste management be in place first, but also all related departments – forest, revenue, health, PWD, tourism, etc. – and also panchayats, mahila mandals, eco-clubs, NGOs, hotel associations and general public need to be made partners, if the program is to succeed.

It started with a plastic ban for protection of the environment – a serious ban, not merely lip-service. The state had imposed in October 2009, a ban on the production, storage, use, sale and distribution of all types of polythene bags made of non-biodegradable materials. In 2010, a week-long anti polythene campaign ('Polythene Hatao, Paryavaran Bachao’) was carried out and in the process 1381 quintals of waste was collected -- carry bags, disposable cups and laminated plastics like pouches of chips, pan masala, aluminium foil and packaging material used for biscuits, chocolates, and milk and grocery items. This plastic, shredded and mixed appropriately with other ingredients, was enough to build a 138-km stretch of road on the outskirts of Shimla. Thus, the successful implementation was the outcome of collaboration between the Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board and the PWD (Public Works Department).

Once the beneficial effects – quality of road, cost saving of around Rs 35,000 to Rs 45,000 per km of road as the plastic waste replaces 10-15 per cent of Bitumen, and disposal of waste plastic – were seen, more proposals were made for making such roads – 250 km each, in six zones.

An institutional mechanism for procurement of plastic, which included rag pickers, NGOs, panchayats, state PWD etc. was put in place and incentives were given at every level for the collection of plastic waste: the state would purchase plastic waste at Rs 3 per kg with an additional rupee as handling charges, as an incentive for the rag pickers to segregate the plastic waste and make money.

Further, the state government extended fiscal incentives to panchayats, urban bodies and individuals for contributing towards proper collection of waste plastic in their respective areas. In order to ensure maximum involvement of the district administration and other government agencies, Chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal awarded a running trophy to the joint winning districts, as also a cash prize. A special award for the collection of quantum waste was also awarded.

Last but not least, the effort of the state and the leading officer was recognised by the central government: Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Science and Sarojini Ganju Thakur was given the Prime Minister’s Award by Manmohan Singh for “Excellence in public service on Sustainable Plastic Waste Management in H.P.” at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi on the occasion of Civil Services Day in 2011.

These incentives in the form of cash or recognition can be an important tool in this crucial civic endeavor.

The Urgent Need to Follow up

That an urgency must be felt regarding tackling the twin dangers of pothole-ridden roads that cause a high number of accidents, and the plastic waste that clogs rivers and streets and poses a threat to the planet needs no underlining. To further accentuate the dangers that that landfills/dumping sites in cities pose to the lives of people, Isher Judge Ahluwalia, who has headed an expert committee on urban infrastructure, along with Almitra Patel, cited the case of a garbage slide that had occurred in Delhi, killing two people. Apart from this there are frequent major and minor fires in the mounds owing to methane being trapped inside the landfill.

The authors strongly recommended bio-mining of the garbage hills to segregate and reuse the waste; for the light thin plastics, they suggest using a separator/fan to blow them out, shredding and adding them to bitumen before bitumen is poured onto hot tar stones. “The bitumen adheres so much more strongly to these coated stones that potholes do not form during rains. Such roads withstand breakup in snowy regions and far outlast normal roads. With their capacity to handle tanks and heavy vehicle traffic, such roads are ideal for border roads.

This recommendation is especially relevant, as states have sometimes cited plastic shortage as the reason for not going ahead with this technology at full steam.

For the plan to be a success, state PWDs and all road authorities will need to bolster the central government’s efforts and guidelines by specifying this requirement of plastic-blended bitumen to contractors. Waste segregation will need to be stringently followed, the plastic collection and recycling industry could be incentivised. All agencies need to be stakeholders in this, as the Himachal case study demonstrates, and incentives and rewards to each of these works well to prod them to perform, rather than simply cajoling.

Swati Kamal is a columnist for Swarajya.


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