(NEW DELHI, INDIA) — In the 1990s, Ahmed Khan’s company in Bangalore, India, churned out hundreds of thousands of plastic bags and other packaging material each month that eventually ended up as garbage. Now, he is in the business of scouring the city’s landfills and trash cans to reclaim some of that waste and pave the way to a more environmentally friendly enterprise.
Mr. Khan, 60, is trying to solve two of the biggest problems in India: battered roads and overflowing landfills. His solution: streets made with recycled plastic.
Mr. Khan’s company, K.K. Plastic Waste Management, which he founded with his brother, Rasool Khan, has built more than 1,200 kilometers, or 745 miles, of roads using 3,500 tons of plastic waste, primarily in Bangalore, India’s technology and outsourcing hub.
Mixing plastic with asphalt, Mr. Khan forms a compound called polymerized bitumen. When used in roads, it withstands monsoons and everyday wear and tear better than traditional pavement.
“Typically, our roads have a life of three to four years under ideal conditions, but the plastic has increased that by at least another year or two,” said Sunil Bose, head of the Flexible Pavement Division at the Indian Central Road Research Institute, a government agency.
Building a road with a mix of plastic costs about 3 percent more than constructing a conventional road, but Mr. Khan said that in the long run such roads cost less because repair and repaving expenses are much lower.
Mr. Bose said more pilot projects would be undertaken to meet standards in states around the country over the next six months under the supervision of his institute, which approved the technology in 2004 after years of testing.
Polymerized bitumen is not a new compound and has been used for paving in places other than India. But typically the bitumen is mixed with new plastic, making it an expensive venture that has no environmental benefits. Mr. Khan’s innovation uses waste plastic, including bottles and food packaging.
India was not a big user of plastic until the mid-1980s, when the government sanctioned increases in the national production of plastic to help industries become globally competitive. The use of plastic was also stimulated by the movement of more people to cities and importing of more foreign goods.
India, which traditionally recycled a lot of its garbage, was not prepared to handle the increase in plastic waste, including discarded bags, which some experts say can take as long as 1,000 years to decompose.
In 2005, after monsoon rains flooded Mumbai, plastic bags were blamed for clogging the underground drainage system and intensifying the effect of the floods. In areas frequented by tourists, like Goa, heavy consumption of bottled water has resulted in trash on beaches, creating eyesores and endangering marine life.
Even India’s cows, considered sacred, have not been spared. After 3,000 cows died in Lucknow in 2000, the city investigated and found plastic bags in their stomachs. Apparently the bags had been ingested as the animals grazed at dump sites.
Several state governments have banned plastic bags in recent years, although Bangalore has not.
Mr. Khan said he had never set out to be an environmental entrepreneur, but after an anti-plastics movement gained strength in the mid-1990s, he decided that environmentalists had a valid argument and started to worry about his business. From 1998 to 2000, he and his brother developed their technology, testing it on more than 600 potholes in Jayanagar, an upscale neighborhood in Bangalore.
Convinced that they had made a breakthrough, they approached Bangalore University and later the road institute for research and support. Several years and many more road tests later, they were given their first contract by the Bangalore municipal government to pave 40 kilometers of roads.
The Khans’ business spread to other cities and states, and although they patented the plasticized pavement in India, other companies are copying the technology. The Khans said they had decided not to object.
With a ban on plastic bags being enforced in the Indian capital and the Indian High Court asking the government to explore new ways of using plastics, the New Delhi municipal government is showing interest as well. The road institute is working with the Public Works Department in New Delhi to start a project in the city using the technology.
The plastic in Mr. Khan’s roads is collected by garbage collectors, who form the backbone of the Indian recycling industry. These workers collect trash from homes and offices and sort through it for material that can be sold to specialized middlemen, who sell it to recycling companies. Typically, an average garbage collector is paid less than a dollar a day, making as much as 8 rupees, or 17 cents, a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, depending on the quality of the plastic. But Mr. Khan offers them 8 to 10 rupees a kilogram, ensuring a steady supply. With the help of the Bangalore government, he is also setting up collection points in residential areas.
Of the 35 tons of plastic waste generated by Bangalore each day, Mr. Khan said he was already using three to five tons daily on the roads.
The plastic waste is churned into flakes, then combined at a ratio of eight tons of plastic to every 100 tons of bitumen. For every kilometer of single-lane road, about two tons of plastic is needed.
Five years after the laying of Mr. Khan’s first plastic-mix pavement, the roads seem to be surviving. Mr. Khan attributes this to the plastic’s tendency to act as a binding agent, thereby increasing the ability of bitumen to hold together at higher temperatures. And since plastic is water-resistant, the roads do not get waterlogged, have fewer potholes and need repairs less frequently than conventional roads.
Not everyone is enthusiastic. Despite interest from Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of Delhi, only two kilometers of such pavement have been laid in the Indian capital, and that was five years ago. Local news reports suggest that senior officials have not allowed proposals to go further because contracts for regular maintenance of roads are a big business in India, worth 350 billion rupees a year. Not only would some businesses lose money, but government officials who take kickbacks could also lose, the reports have said.
The information officer for the chief minister’s office, who goes by a single name, Satpal, said, “We’re always going to say there’s no corruption.”
Ms. Dikshit’s office did not respond to other written questions and follow-up phone calls.
Mr. Bose, however, said the slow pace of growth was the result of officials’ desire to be cautious about adopting any new technology too rapidly, lest unforeseen problems arise.
“We have to be careful that adulteration does not begin,” he said, referring to the practice of mixing other substances with plastic.
Some environmentalists are also skeptical. “The focus really has to be on reduction of plastics rather than finding ways to get rid of it,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, director of Chintan, a nongovernment environmental research and action group based in New Delhi. “Technology is no solution to policy and public action.”
Mr. Khan said he was frustrated by the sluggish pace of adoption.
“The government has to take initiative and make it mandatory, if it is to have any effect,” said Mr. Khan, who spent about $325,000 to finance the initial research and testing.
His goal has always been to make a profit, he said. He declined to discuss the financial state of his company but said the cost of the technology and the limited acceptance had made it difficult. Unless local public works departments and the National Highway
Authority incorporate bitumen modified with waste plastic into their requirements for road specifications, he said, the technology would remain a novelty.
As for the idea that the focus must be solely on reducing plastic consumption, Mr. Khan said it was impractical to imagine a world without plastic. He said he preferred to think about eco-friendly ways of disposal.
“We have to start looking at plastic as raw material rather than waste,” he said.
By MRIDU KHULLAR