In India, business owner Ahmed Khan is turning trash to treasure by transforming recycled plastic into new pavement for roads, according to a recent New York Times piece.
Owner of K.K. Plastic Waste Management, which he founded along with his brother, so far Kahn has built more than 745 miles of roads using 3,500 tons of plastic waste, primarily in Bangalore, India’s technology and outsourcing hub.
The pavement, which is a mixture of plastic and asphalt known as polymerized bitumen, is not a new technology. What is new is that Khan's company is making bitumen with recycled plastic like bottles and food packaging, rather than with new plastic.
By reusing plastic and remaking it into a raw material, Khan is solving two of India’s biggest problems: deteriorating roads and overflowing landfills. Plus, the material is much cheaper than new plastic, so using the waste keeps costs low.
Best of all, though India’s typical roads only last about three or four years before they start deteriorating, Khan’s bitumen compound extends the life of roads by at least another year or two, which adds up to decreased maintenance costs over the long term.
India didn't always have a plastic waste problem. Use of the material increased around the mid-1980s when the government sanctioned increases in the national production of plastic to help industries become globally competitive. The mass migration of more people to cities and the importing of more foreign goods also played a role in plastic’s increased use.
But the plethora of plastics comes with negative environmental consequences similar to those found in the U.S. According to the report, plastic in India has turned up in underground drainage systems and even cows that ingest the material after grazing on dump sites.
Though there’s currently a ban on plastic bags in New Delhi, the capital of India, Khan’s workers still find plenty of plastic trash in homes and offices across the country. And, with the help of the Bangalore government, Khan is also setting up collection points in residential areas.
Yet despite the potential benefits of bitumen as well as plans by the government to conduct more pilot tests of the material, Khan’s business has stagnated, allegedly because road maintenance is big business in India and companies may not want to lose that revenue stream. Others are worried about adopting a new technology too quickly before the proper precautions are taken.
Even environmentalists are finding fault with Khan's business. Bharati Chaturvedi, director of Chintan, a nongovernment environmental research and action group based in New Delhi, felt that the government’s focus should be on phasing out plastic use rather than on ways to reuse it.
“The focus really has to be on reduction of plastics rather than finding ways to get rid of it,” said Chaturvedi. “Technology is no solution to policy and public action.”
Khan disagreed, arguing that it was impractical to think that the world could go entirely plastic-free.
“The government has to take initiative and make it mandatory, if it is to have any effect,” said Khan, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance the initial research and testing. “We have to start looking at plastic as raw material rather than waste.”