On the brighter side of the plastic world

Rajagopalan Vasudevan, professor at Thiagarajar College of Engineering and popularly know as the Plastic Man of India, firmly believes that the entire debate around banning plastics is futile, considering their importance to India’s economy and business. The solution lies in better management of the plastic value chain, use of smarter alternatives where possible and innovation.


Plastic, the wonderful substance!

Plastic is the most useful material available for man’s various needs and products. It is an extremely important material just like cement and bitumen. Nothing has made this clearer in the present time than the use of plastics in the war against the novel COVID-19.

Thanks to the pandemic, the plastic industry has got a renewed life. All the protective gears require single use plastic, so does medical appliances. Plastic prevents virus contamination and the virus remains on the surface for less hours compared to other surfaces. Doctors, medical workers and essential workers can prevent virus contamination by wearing these plastic layers.

Besides its use in the medical industry, plastic can also be deployed in various other industries owing to its versatility. Let me cite another example about how plastic can be used for good. Recently, I developed a component called Plastone – a stone block with plastic coating – which can be used in toilets – very useful for a country like ours where we need crores of washrooms. This non-porous substance can also be used in flooring, for raising compound walls and as an effective liner for water bodies.

Plastics are very cheap and affordable, so these are widely used by people in their daily life. Due to these reasons, plastic is also a very useful substance in the packaging industry.  Moreover, its multi-layered property increases the shelf life of food. Similarly, plastic packaging provides protection from mites, fungus or virus and so it is used in medicine packaging.

Plan over ban

About 100 years back, a very efficient circular economy was followed; there was no waste. People reused everything. Taking the example of fountain pens and ball point pens, ball point pens are thrown away after use while fountain pens can be used for a long time. We should restrict ball point pens and encourage fountain pens. But that might not be a practical solution with so many varieties of pens available.

We must try and understand that whatever problems with plastic we are facing today are the result of human mistakes and ignorance. Human beings have become heartless creatures with no regard for other creatures. It is highly irresponsible to throw our garbage into the oceans. It will affect the animals and later on, it will also impact us. This should be prevented by lawmakers. There should be provisions to collect all the plastic waste accumulated in the water bodies. If you look at the present situation, it is clear that human beings are the cause of majority of disturbances within nature. This calls for the need to be in coordination with the environment.

The main problem with plastic is that it does not decompose. However, there are several other materials, which do not decompose easily. For example, stone does not decompose easily but it is used in construction. We have been unable to deal properly with plastic waste. Going back to the food and confectionery example – its multi-layered property increases food life but again multi-layered plastic cannot be recycled. We can reduce the consumption of such materials in our life. I would suggest that using multi-packets is a better option than multi layered plastic. These packets can be removed and recycled.

What we use in India is only 10% of what we need, so there is no point in talking about banning plastic. When it comes to plastic, my slogan is “Not to ban but to plan.” The only reason there was a discourse around banning plastics was because people have not followed the given regulations for waste management. If plastic is banned, more than 1 lakh industries will close and several people will lose their jobs. Especially now that we are starting the “Make in India” campaign of the government, the need for plastic will increase as we would have to improve the industrial environment of India.

So, making guidelines for efficient plastic waste management is the key here. The Pollution Control Board should come up with waste disposal solutions and corporations should implement these mechanisms and guidelines. The Kerala Clean Corporation, for instance, collects 1,200 tons of plastic from the road. This is a viable and practical solution that reduces pollution. We should look for such environmental solutions.

We also have to try and educate people about the do’s and don’ts of plastic waste disposal. The Central Government released a set of regulations in 2015, which has a very detailed description of how to collect and dispose waste. If people can simply follow the rules and regulations, we can overcome all the problems.

For example, due to the COVID scenario, the use of plastic has increased, but I have not seen any information regarding how they are being disposed. This is a very important point. Manufacturers of these products should provide disposal instructions. This is their basic responsibility, and this is what we need from all plastic product manufacturers. Plastic is very useful, but it should come with proper disposal procedures.

Medical waste should be properly incinerated. Incineration is a very important process, which is not carried out that well. Incineration is not just burning the waste and throwing it away. It should not affect the environment.

Finally, we need to invest into R&D and try to develop a plastic that will undergo decomposition. I have developed a plastic that decomposes in 200 days; this is a scientific development that needs to be brought out, but we can’t go against plastic altogether. The concept of “Make in India” is very important. We have to come up with our own developments; we need to come up with new technology, which will help the poor as 68% of India’s population lives in poverty.

Rajagopalan Vasudevan, is an Indian scientist who has worked mainly in waste management and is currently a professor in Thiagarajar College of Engineering. He developed an innovative method to reuse plastic waste to construct better, more durable and very cost-effective roads, and is popularly known as the Plastic Man of India. He conceptualised the idea of shredding plastic waste, mixing it with bitumen and using the polymerized mix in road construction. This method will help in making roads much faster and also will save environment from dangerous plastic waste. The roads also show greater resistance to damages caused by heavy rains. His road construction method is now widely used to construct roads in rural India. He was awarded India’s fourth highest civilian honour Padma Shri in 2018.

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