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25/08/14

The man who turned plastic waste into motorways

Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a professor of chemistry at the Thiagaraja College of Engineering, developed a groundbreaking concept: he uses waste found on the street in the construction of roads. His project has helped to add 5,000 km to India's motorway network.

He is known as Plastic Man. The idea first came to him as a possible solution to one of the fundamental problems faced by India. Alleyways, fields and tourist sites are littered with all types of waste: cans, bottles, bags, wrappers, and more. The problem is most visible in the north of the country.

Over 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste are generated every day in India.
Rather than being alarmed, Rajagopalan Vasudevan considers plastic waste to be a "gift from the gods"; he has been studying the issue in-depth for over 10 years.

His idea is fairly simple. He first collects the waste abandoned on large vacant lots: plastic bags, bottles, various wrappers, etc. He then converts the waste into tiny pieces that he mixes in with asphalt. The result is entirely beneficial: the addition of complementary alternatives enables road construction costs to be lowered and, most importantly, the new material degrades much more slowly than that used in the construction of "ordinary roads". The method is so simple to put into application that it requires no significant technical knowledge, no large investments or changes to existing road-laying procedures.

Vasudevan's method could be the winning formula. However, the country's waste problem is not limited to the discovery of appropriate technologies; it is a cultural reality. "The waste, which is often picked up by servants, is considered a poor people's problem", Vasudevan explained. "It is unseemly for certain social classes to pick up garbage." It will be necessary to change the public's perception in this regard - another challenge for the professor.

So far, over 5,000 km of roads have been built this way around the country. The Central Pollution Control Board and the Indian Roads Congress, two leading government agencies, have approved the method.

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