Indian researchers and industry alike are implementing innovative new ways to recycle waste, in the face of a drastically rising population and potential environmental disaster, according to a new report from the HindustanTimes who interviewed a number of waste management and recycling experts.
Numbers cited in the report say that India generates around 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste each day; equivalent to 4,300 elephants. According to the Union environment ministry, 60% of this figure is recycled, while the rest is either burnt or finds its way into landfills, drains and oceans. In light of this, researchers are now looking for new ways India can re-use this plastic waste to avoid an impending environmental crisis, spur productivity and employment and lead the way in terms of waste management.
However, one problem remaining for industry is the resource-intensive nature of recycling. “It is the process of cleaning the plastics before recycling that makes it resource-intensive,” says Dr Suneel Pandey, director of the environment and waste management at The Energy and Resources (TERI) Institute. “A lot of water is required to wash the collected plastics, especially if it is oily or greasy as it has to be cleaned with a solvent,” he continued to explain.
Author of the report, Anonna Dutt, says that “proper waste collection and management is at the core of ensuring more plastics get recycled instead of ending up in landfills and oceans.”
This sentiment was echoed by Dr Anjan Ray, director of the Indian Institute of Petroleum, a laboratory that exists within the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research who said that “improper waste management also makes plastics collected for recycling less safe as they pick up environmental toxins, bio-medical waste or very unpleasant bacteria, viruses and fungi at a landfill.”
However, researchers and chemical engineers are working on new ways to manage waste and break down plastics to small hydrocarbon molecules that can in turn by synthesised into diesel. The process can turn packaging material, PET bottles, polystyrene and multi-layer packaging, according to the team at IIT Delhi. “The process is meant for plastics that are at the end of their life,” Uma Dwivedi, PhD student working with the project said. “The plastics are basically cleaned out and melted, when the vapours form, they are further cracked or broken down to smaller molecules using a catalyst, a fraction of which is then condensed and collected to be used as fuel.”
CSIR - IIP in Dehradun is using a similar method to produce commercial-grade diesel, according to the report. “Recycling is definitely important but to my mind, the ultimate solution would be to take the plastic agglomerates and turn them back into its constituents,” Dr Anjan Ray said. “Plastics are mainly made or carbon and hydrogen and so are fossil fuels. So, at CSIR-IIP we have set up a plant to convert waste plastic to diesel. For every 1,000kg of plastic, we can make 800 litres of diesel. The balance is mostly LPG, which we use to heat the reactor that makes the diesel.”
There is also mention of German-based chemical producer, BASF working with a similar chemical recycling method to create raw and recycled materials for its products. “Scientists are now looking for ways to close the loop and create a circular economy for plastic, meaning all the plastic produced should be reused and recycled,” Pandey said, adding that as it stands, “the cost of processing is [still] too high.”
However, a possible solution has been put forward by Dr Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a professor at the College of Engineering in Madurai, who theorised mixing plastic waste with bitumen as road-base for construction back in 2001. “That year the Tamil Nadu government had planned to ban plastic and my concern began with people employed by the industry. Since plastic is derived from petroleum just like bitumen, I thought of using it for road construction. The result, nt only plastic waste was getting utilised, the roads were cheaper and steadier,” he said. Better still, the resource-intensive nature of cleaning and processing the plastics was all but eliminated, according to Vasudevan, who says that “all we need to do is collect the waste, dry it out and use it.”
While India has made significant strides in the battle against plastic pollution, Dr Pandey says that there is still research needed to make a bigger impact. “To make plastic eco-friendly, we need to make it more biodegradable. A lot of work is going on in bio-degradable plastics, but petroleum-derived plastics like polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene are cheap and abundant. It is, therefore, necessary for investment in research to develop better plastics that are more efficiently biodegradable.”