Planet 5 min
Plastic waste: a trip around the world to find sustainable solutions
Quentin and Mathieu went on a cycling trip around the world a little more than a year ago in order meet people who collect, recycle and re-use plastic waste. They recently completed their journey. After a promising start (see Article from January 2018, the second part of their journey was just as rich and full of surprises.
Plastic waste: a trip around the world to find sustainable solutions
Plastic waste: a trip around the world to find sustainable solutions

Plastic waste recovery in India: polymers as catalysts of social change

In India, the untouchables are often relegated to sorting waste.

You wished to speak at greater length about the Indian subcontinent. Why?

Simply because it is a continent, and a country that troubled us given how full of paradoxes it is. Society is still rigidly organised, and the caste system is well and truly alive.

There are, what can be called, “untouchables”, and they are most often relegated to performing the worst possible work for the duration of their lives. It is not a cliché to quench the thirst of adventure-hungry tourists. This state of affairs pushes the cleverest among them to use all their ingenuity to escape their condition. And given that they spend a large portion of their life in slums or dumps, used plastics become resources, and much more, for the more imaginative people.

Do you have any innovative examples of plastic recycling?

Mumbai, for instance, has over 18 million inhabitants, making it one of the world’s most populous areas. As in all Indian cities, some neighbourhoods are rich and others are appallingly poor. They are two separate worlds that never intersect.

Escaping the slums could be possible thanks to objects made from recycled plastic waste collected in landfills.

It is very difficult for someone born in a slum to ever leave the slum. There are many ways to make a little money, and many untouchables become ragpickers out of obligation. They spend their time collecting and sorting waste that they will then sell by weight. This economic system can be found in most poor countries, particularly in Africa. In India, the system is well-organised and effective. The poorest people collect, sort and sell their goods to the less poor who will themselves sell the goods to waste processors. It is believed that this economy of waste generates millions of dollars in Mumbai each year. However, the ragpickers at the bottom of the ladder barely earn enough to eat, which means that it is impossible to leave the slums without employing illegal means. However, things are starting to change in this country that is seeing promising new technologies emerge. A few years ago, a group of students, disgusted with the caste system, decided to launch Plastic Maker Hub to improve ragpickers’ lives. The aim was to teach them how to convert the plastics that they collect into marketable objects. A little nudge from destiny helped them on their way when they discovered that a Dutch engineer had uploaded and made available free of charge the plans for a machine intended to grind and mould plastics. In a few months’ time, they were able to collect all the parts necessary to build the machine. It’s a well-known fact that you can find almost anything in a dump. Since then, they have sold coasters, booklet protectors, wallets, and more. Although it is still in its infancy, Plastic Maker Hub should become a commercial and social success over time. By climbing up the chain of value of their work, the poorest people may find it easier to escape crushing poverty.

 

India is currently seen as a country training a large number of high-level scientists. Did you meet any interested in the future of plastic waste?

Not scientists as such, but companies with great ambitions such as KK Plastics, a company which manufactures asphalt for roadworks made of plastic aggregates made from used plastics and tar, which it sells to public works departments. According to KK Plastics, the asphalt’s lifetime is greatly increased thanks to the elasticity provided by the polymers. However, it has not been successful due to simple commercial reasons. Public works companies only use the amalgam when they are required to do so by the authorities. Those companies believe that it is more profitable to re-asphalt the roads more often. This can be considered a planned obsolescence of sorts.

In India, the asphalt is sometimes enhanced with crushed plastic, increasing its longevity.

We ended our time in India in Hyderabad, at the head office of Baky’s. This company was created by a hydrologist who decided to create edible cutlery. After many months of work, the company achieved a world’s first by mixing various types of flour, including millet. A video uploaded to Youtube garnered interest from millions of individuals. Todays, the cutlery is available in 138 countries.

Zero plastics in landfills means considering used plastics as a resource.

What conclusion have you drawn from this around-the-world trip in search of solutions for the valorisation of used plastics?

Our conclusion is a simple, even simplistic one. To be quite honest, we had arrived at the conclusion before even climbing on our bikes. We all have a role to play with regards to recycling waste.

First of all, we the citizens must sort our own waste. To make this easier for us, the institutions must provide assistance. The involvement of associations is also crucial as it is made up of activists who are able to make their voices heard and often provide realistic solutions. Finally, there is industry as a whole, and not just the chemical industry. We believe that professionals in the food industry, for instance, have many opportunities for developing eco-responsible packaging. We are not talking about drastically changing society, but rather, the fact that everyone can make small efforts which, over time, could create major change!

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