MADURAI, India — The South Indian city of Madurai has an overabundance of garbage. While contained in a municipal dump, the trash overflows onto nearby fields as trees sag with the weight of the waste that piles up by the day.
Despite the stench, 69-year-old Rajagopalan Vasudevan is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Instead, he sees the trash as a treasure trove of untapped resources.
A professor of chemistry in Madurai, Vasudevan created a method for building roads by transforming plastic litter into a substitute for bitumen — the main ingredient in asphalt. This innovative technique uses not only thick plastics such as acrylics and bottles, but also grocery bags and wrappers.
Building roads from plastic reduces waste and saves money, while replacing as much as 15 percent of the more expensive bitumen in the mix used to pave roads.
Technology is lowering the cost of enhancing India’s infrastructure, which needs a serious makeover.
Traveling throughout India to share his discovery, Vasudevan is known as the Plastic Man. Clearly committed to the cause, he traveled around India to instruct engineers on how to apply his system.
The method requires no significant technical knowledge, large investments or changes to existing road laying procedures. This creative way to build roads has the potential to be hugely successful due to the easy access to plastic.
The country’s Central Pollution Control Board says more than 15,000 tons of plastic waste are generated daily.
According to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, as much as 40 percent of India’s municipal waste remains uncollected. To make matters worse, the majority of waste that is collected is not recycled. Similar to Madurai, most of the waste ends up rotting away in open dumps, which causes problems such as soil and groundwater contamination.
If the trash is disposed of, it is burned and toxic chemicals are released into the air.
The college where Vasudevan is a professor holds a patent for his technique, but often licenses it for free. To date, more than 3,000 miles of roads have been laid in at least 11 states using recycled plastic.
The Plastic Man’s simple yet significant discovery just may be India’s answer to cleaning up its overflowing debris. Not to mention, it helps India build roads in the process at a lower cost.
Paved roads are a crucial component in the fight against poverty. Without physical access, rural communities face great challenges in obtaining health, education and other social services. In addition, without adequate roads, general employment opportunities are constrained. For example, farmers have a difficult time taking advantage of surplus crop production if they cannot travel effectively.
“Because of waste, a waste has become useful,” Vasudevan said, joking about his discovery.
Nevertheless, the groundbreaking discovery is far from a laughing matter and holds incredible potential for economic, health and environmental benefits in India.
– Caroline Logan