Ahmed Khan and K. Rasool Khan are brothers in Bengaluru, India, who may have discovered a way of saving the planet. They have invented a method where daily plastic waste can be used in the construction of roads. The roads constructed using their methods have been found to be more durable, sustainable and cost-effective.
Mr. Ahmed, your business initially dealt with plastic products. How did you come up with this concept and how did you decide to shift your business likewise?
Yes, as you mentioned, we were running a plastic bag manufacturing unit back in 1986. In 1996, there was a lobby demanding the ban of plastic bags in the state (Karnataka). That is when we realized we needed to think of a way to shift our focus and utilise plastic in a way that could be beneficial and sustainable. My brother, Rasool Khan, began working on this along with his son, who was pursuing chemical engineering at that time. To be frank, it did take some time but soon we discovered that plastic could be useful in the construction of roads, by blending it with bitumen.
How did you give shape to this idea and then implement it? What are the challenges that you came across, going from the process of ideation to implementation?
Initially when we came up with this idea, it only made sense for us to find ways to deploy it practically. We approached many contractors, but they did not accept our idea saying it is not government-approved. We then approached Bangalore University where, with the help of a revered professor, we tested our product. Soon we filled about 1000 potholes in the city of Bangalore, without any permission though, and then we kept it for observation. Our fillings stood through all seasons. Larsen and Toubro was interested in our project shortly after that and with their help, we laid about 500 metres of road in a village on the outskirts of the city. Soon after, Bangalore University brought out their report based on observation and they deemed our idea fit to be used.
After that, we approached the then Chief Minister and he seemed very interested in the idea. However, many other bureaucrats did not agree and they wanted a central institute report to concur. We sponsored a research at Central Road Research Institute, Delhi, around 1998. They brought out a report in 2001 and gave our idea a green signal. In 2002, the Chief Minister officially expressed his consent and we were given a pilot project for constructing a road of 40 km, in partnership with the municipal corporation, Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BMP). The road was observed for three years and there was hardly any damage caused to the road. After that we were given many more projects and overall, we laid nearly 3500 km of roads in Bangalore alone, consuming around 15,000 tonnes of waste plastic. Slowly this idea grew and became popular in many parts of the world.
Since this idea was first of its kind, how did you make this economically sustainable? Does you method bear any hazards to the environment?
We took a lot of time and a spent a lot of money to mould this idea. We thought it was important that we make this commercial or else it would not be viable. We started collecting plastic and a major source for us was rag-pickers. We bought it from them at Rs. 8 per kg, which even they thought was a good deal. After processing the plastic accordingly, we started supplying it to the BMP and we made money out of that. That grew out to be a business for us and also a source of employment for many directly or indirectly. We did not want to make our firm, K.K. Plastic Waste Management, an NGO or a charitable organisation because if it did not grow out to be a full-fledged business, there would be no money to make this sustainable.
From our end, we did not find any environmental hazards. It is not harmful because we are not directly burning plastic or even melting it. It is more like creating a mix. When bitumen is already in a very heated state and ready to be used for road construction, we just blend the dry plastic waste with that.
Today, due to the associated hazards, people are increasingly shelving the use of plastic. With your concept in place, how do you think you can spread awareness about the usage of plastic?
I personally do not believe that plastic is a curse or a threat to the environment. I know it sounds controversial, but I can boldly say it is a boon and we should say yes to plastic. What needs changing are the ways of people. It definitely is an issue that people are very careless when it comes to dumping their plastic waste. If we use it and recycle it properly, a huge amount of natural resources can in fact be conserved. But what all of us do is call it a menace after we use it, instead of finding methods to make use of this entity. Plastic takes a huge amount of time to biodegrade. So even if you ban plastic, you still have to think of a way to tackle the existing waste. So might as well think of ways to use it to our advantage.
Awareness is needed in the area of segregating plastic waste properly. Once plastic is mixed with garbage, the garbage becomes useless. Only if we have a way of proper segregation, every section of the generated waste can be recycled or reused in a certain way, be it as compost or for producing items. I believe trends are definitely changing. Initiatives are actively coming in place to look at ways to reuse plastic. Levi’s has come out with a concept where they are blending plastic into their cotton yarns, to make jeans. Adidas is recycling plastic bottles and using it for making shoes. Many firms are even manufacturing clothes at cheaper rates using recycled plastic and people are buying them actively. That is the kind of support even we are looking at.
Most parts of India are still struggling with proper connectivity, be it due to bad roads or no roads at all. Where do you think the near future of these areas lie in terms of connectivity? Do you think your idea could be a game changer?
Yes, this is one problem which I think still needs addressing, although I believe the state of affairs is shifting towards the better. From our end, we are using our concept to help bring connectivity in rural India under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana scheme. I feel our initiative is more suited to rural areas. The roads will last much longer there as the stress on the surface is less as compared to a city and I definitely think this can be a turning point when it comes to bringing connectedness to rural India. Plus it is cost effective as ultimately it is cheaper to use for construction as compared to traditional roads. I think the way we have thought about plastic, it is beneficial in all ways; the plastic waste is being taken care of, it can be a bread-earner for many, the current harm to the environment that is being done can be stopped and most importantly our roads and commutation experience will become much better.
Can you talk about some of the significant recognitions and awards you have received, ever since this concept of yours gained ground?
We received quite a few awards for this initiative. But I fondly remember the Real Heroes Award of CNN-IBN. It gave us good publicity and plus we collected it alongside Mary Kom. Even New York Times carried a full page story on our initiative. The idea also features in the CBSE textbook of Class 12. Other media outlets, including BBC and National Geographic, have also highlighted us.
Lastly, any new projects in pipeline? Where do you go from this point onwards?
About three months back, Gurugram’s Municipal Corporation became aware of our concept and approached us for a partnership. We set up a unit there, which will be starting out very soon. I think this is something which we look forward to for all the states, where we want partnerships and can get local investments. At the same time a commitment has to be made because there is quite a lot of work involved. The waste plastic has to be collected and sorted first, which in itself is not easy because there is so much waste being produced daily. Therefore we need support from the government, corporations and definitely the people. We have received support from different countries too, who wanted to learn our idea and we shared it with them.
At this point, after investing so much time, work and money, what we want is for our project to be recognised and implemented in many more areas. I’d like to mention here that unfortunately from where we started, that is Bangalore, they have stopped using our method from 2011-12 onwards due to the influence of mafia. With noble initiatives, I think noble intent is necessary so that many more concepts, such as ours, can be recognised and implemented. The bad side of things will always exist, but whether we choose to sit and complain or work on them is what will make the ultimate difference.
Author: Anirban Paul
Anirban Paul is a former journalist of Reuters News.