The OECD estimates that upwards of 40% of municipal waste in India is simply not collected. Over the years, scientists and regional and municipal governments in the country have been collaborating on how to reduce the amount of non-biodegradable waste that blankets the country. This project is modeled after smaller-scale road paving initiatives that occurred in New Delhi and Bangalore (and other areas of the world) but the difference is in the plastic. Many past attempts to incorporate plastic into road infrastructure relied on new, rather than re-purposed, plastics. This was costly and did little to address the environmental or waste management issues in the country, and was ultimately unsustainable. This initiative depends on re-purposed plastics, and is hoping to implement it regionally.
The Housing and Urban Development Department, together with the State Pollution Control Board, has created a task force to put the plan in motion. Pilot projects will be rolled out in 10 municipalities in 3 states to test the composite of plastic, bitumen and stone as compared to traditional paving methods. All types of plastics, not just bottles or containers, are being considered, including plastic bags and packaging. Plastic bags exacerbate floods by clogging drains during monsoons and kill livestock that feed on them. Recently 3000 cows were found dead with plastic bags in their stomachs due to grazing in dump areas. In this project, the plastic is ground into flakes and combined with bitumen (and stone in some case). It is highly durable and long-lasting, and stands up well against monsoons and flooding as it is highly resistant to rain and water logging. It endures wear and tear better than conventional paving materials, and thus reduces both the traffic congestion and costs associated with maintenance and repair.
The municipal corporations of Bhubaneswar and Cuttack are the largest areas involved in the project, with populations of over 800,000 and 500,000, respectively. Together, the regions produce upwards of 550 tonnes of waste per day, of which 55t is estimated to be plastic. The road project requires just one tonne of plastic per kilometer of road, so there is ample material for the project to be wide-reaching. However, the initiative is being stalled by problems in procuring non-biodegradable materials from the massive amounts of mixed trash that end up in city dumps and in the streets. Cuttack had a waste segregation system but discontinued it due to a lack of manpower that could collect and clean the plastic to prep it for production.
Given that this project is a ramped-up version of smaller plastic paving initiatives, perhaps an equally robust garbage collection entrepreneurial initiative could address the issue the project is facing. In New Delhi and Bangalore, KK Plastic Waste Management built 1,200 kilometres of roads with 3,500t of plastic, and it was reliant on a network of garbage collectors to procure its resources. Garbage workers collected trash from municipalities (in the absence of a municipal waste management service) and sold it to a middleman, who then sold it to the recycling companies that cleaned the plastic and prepared it for production. In this initiative, the municipal government of Bangalore was enlisted to set up collection points in residential areas.
A similar move for those involved in this initiative, combined with a public engagement campaign that promoted at-home washing and separating of plastics could ease the burden on the government and the associated companies and facilitate waste reduction locally. In the absence of a government or corporate service for garbage collection, many people are taking up the job themselves in small residential entrepreneurial cooperatives. India has experienced a massive increase in the use of plastic in the last 30 years that corresponds with its rapid economic development. A rise in urban migration, influxes of tourism and industry all contribute to the increase in plastic usage in the country, but none so much as the continued reliance on bottled water due to a nation-wide lack of safe drinking water.
With over 300m tonnes produced annually across the globe, plastic is everywhere. The bulk of it is in the form of packaging, much of which is designed to be used and discarded after one use. It is so abundant, and takes so long to degrade, that it has even become a part of our ‘natural’ world, as recent reports of stones comprised of plastic illustrate. With less than 30% of it ending up in recycling facilities, it is a massive contributor to environmental degradation, and is a serious threat to human, animal and marine life; impacts that are much more apparent in the Global South where waste management efforts are rudimentary and insufficient.
Paving roads with plastic might not ameliorate the root causes of India’s pollution problem, which stem from a lack of infrastructure for waste management and clean water provision, but it is a step toward reducing the volume of trash in the streets, and could contribute to raising rates of employment in the involved municipalities. Only time will tell as those involved continue to debate ways to circumvent the challenge of separating the plastic from other waste. Check back in the future for updates on the project.
Do you think this is a good response to India’s pollution problem? What do you think needs to be done? Let us know in the comments below.
For more on India’s plastic problem, see the following video.