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  Surveying the recycling scene

Wrenching hearts everywhere seek good news on breakthroughs that can handle the plastic litter piled on our streets. Solutions seem feeble so far, and unequal to the task. Let's review some of the attempts being made.

The first approach is to add value to trash. Anita Ahuja's outfit in Delhi, Conserve, creates beautiful fashion accessories out of waste plastic. She, her husband Shalab and several enthusiastic interns from overseas have developed a process of pressing waste films into colourful sheets. These are converted into fashionable handbags that interests even Benetton. They are also trying to develop other usable items like table mats, lamp shades, wallets etc. Products are created mostly by the poor who get nearly Rs.100 per kilo of board produced. That's a great incentive when film waste blowing about in the streets fetches barely Rs.0.50 for the rag picker.

The bonding process creates unpredictably coloured boards. While delightful, that's a limited advantage. Enquiries for large orders are for identical pieces. That and the fact that there is only so much upmarket shelf-space for products of this genre, limits their ability to clean up our streets. Anita has received invitations from NGOs overseas to set up similar units but she is determined to replicate her experience in India first. You can read a detailed report on Conserve's adventures at this link.

Rajiv Badlani in Ahmedabad began to look at plastic waste after his 8 year old daughter threw a tantrum and banned plastic bags in their house. That young school going children are taught to hate plastic waste is a good sign, for a solution to any problem begins with an awareness of the reality. Rajiv then built a good business out of manufacturing cotton shopping bags to beat back plastics. While at the link click to read Badlani's weblog, which focuses on recycling stories from around the world.

He realised he had to do more. So teaming with two designer friends Prakash Vani and Himadri Ghosh, Badlani has developed a way to weave strands of plastic waste into running yards of fabric. Many products are then possible from this material. Again, colours and patterns are random. This process which is nearing perfection, is capable of being scaled up enough to make a dent on the waste heap. Also, hand-loom weavers, now made redundant by the power-loom can find a niche market. Disappointingly though, Badlani has chosen to import plastic waste from overseas; it'd be nice if we cleaned up our spaces first.

A total solution to eliminate plastic waste has to include three merits: 1- it must have the means to reduce or consolidate the vast bulk of waste into easily transported material, 2- it must offer attractive prices for the materials so transported and, 3- the process should be scalable for quantity.

The first approach of making consumer products out of waste, that we reviewd, does not meet all the above criteria. The second approach of industrial strength recycling would. Excepting chlorinated plastics such as PVC, others can safely be incinerated at high temperatures without adding to environmental harm. In steel and cement industries waste plastics offer fuel economy. Nippon Steel currently uses 160,000 tonnes per year of non-chlorinated plastics in its blast furnaces. By 2010, it hopes to utilise 1 million tonnes.

In 2004 Nippon Steel installed a blast furnace for Tata Steel in India, which is capable of using plastic waste. Innovating on the Japanese idea, Veena Sahajwalla in Australia has extended the use of plastic waste in elctric-steel making also. Typically while blast furnaces use coal and iron ore, arc furnaces use electricity and steel scrap. So the time may be ripe for an entrepreneur to implement the Garthe idea across the country to build a profitable supply chain.

Ahmed Khan's idea of mixing pulverised plastic waste with bitumen to lay roads is making good, if slow progress. Since we reported that development, he has received orders to help lay over 500 km of roads within Bangalore city limits. At 2 tonnes of waste required per km of road, this can help clear litter fast. But to do that, he needs encouragement from the National Highways Authority of India. It is puzzling why that isn't forthcoming, considering Khan and Central Road Research Institute have been granted a patent for their process and the 40 km of test roads he laid in Bangalore have proved themselves over last two years. Khan dreams of setting up his pulverising units all over the country. If that dream comes through our loveable rag-picker, who will get Rs.6 per kilo of waste, will clean up our spaces in quick time.

The final approach is to make plastics biodegradable. This would need industry level persuasion but it should not be hard, given that the industry can sell greater volumes. BioMax by DuPont is not just bio-degradable but can even be composted. According to the company, weak spots are created in the polymer chain "making them susceptible through hydrolysis. Moisture cleaves the large polymer molecules into smaller ones, which are then consumed by naturally occurring microbes to carbon dioxide and water." Oh, for picnic plates and cups that will be dissolved in rain. There are many similar products available around the world, some made even from corn.

Given the extent of the menace one may be confident that the problem will be solved in the near future. If that wait makes you despondent, here's a delightful recycling success, though not of plastics.

It appears India generates 12,000 tonnes of currency notes every year. The Reserve Bank of India sells this at between Rs.0.40 to Rs.1.50 a kg. While the waste may be burnt, it may not be recycled into paper. Probably the Bank dreads counterfeiters. Rajratan Technique and Technology in Indore has worked out a great opportunity from this situation: it turns old notes into sheets, doors and furniture. Read the story here.