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Dec 07, 2005
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.

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