In the 1968 film The Graduate, a young character fresh out of College, played by Dustin Hofmann, emerges from the pool in his diving suit and flippers to be given advice on his future. “I just want to say one word to you young man, just one word – plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.” Just like the advice; this extraordinarily durable material carried all before it revolutionising whole industries though, over time, its very durability and non-biodegradable nature have made it a menace for the planet. 

Indian cities are characterised by huge volumes of waste and landfills overflow with plastic. In their valuable book Life in Plastic (2000) Robert Edwards and Rachel Kellet cover how India had not been a major user of plastic until legislation shifts in the 1980s when the Government sanctioned a dramatic increase in its production to assist industries to become globally competitive. The use of plastic then increased rapidly as more people moved to cities and the bonfire of the restrictive licensed Raj in 1991 triggered increased imports. Several studies highlight the impact plastic extruding machines have had on a whole range of traditional craft-based industries and the skills that had been passed through generations. Here are a few:

Tradition has its place ...

  • Liquid carrying utensils. The traditional zinc badle of Rajasthan was the first to fall to mass produced plastic alternatives for carrying water. The same happened for surahi, an earthen pot made for storing water with a tap opening at one end. The pores of mud kept the water cool in hot Indian summers were popular on long train journeys. They could be thrown away at the end of a journey – earth to earth – just like the kulhad used for drinking tea.
  • Furniture. The moodha, an easy chair with a round firm base and arm rests, was the speciality of Gadhmukteshwar in Uttar Pradesh. Made from a plant called moonj with a straw like stem with leaves and fibrous roots beaten to get a fine jute-like thread used to bind the whole structure.   
  • Bamboo chiks and chatties. In the 1981 census over 820,000 cane, bamboo and fibre workers were the thir largest group of artisans. Traditional chiks, or blinds, were commonly used to shade balconies from a brutal and corrosive sunlight. Given its porosity, air can easily pass and, sprinkled with water it becomes an effective cooler. Chatties, or mats, made out of bamboo, coir and grass were equally versatile.
  • Footwear. In Rajasthan, over 100,000 families earn their living by making traditional hand stitched shoes made out of coarse vegetable-tanned leather known as mojaris. Demand has declined dramatically in the past 50 years with the arrival of factory-made plastic footwear such as Bata slippers or plastic chappals and rubber footwear has replaced leather mojaris or, elsewhere, juttis and slippers.

Plastic alternatives affects all of the above industries impacting employment, the sustainability of remote rural regions and, upon urban sprawl as the young move off to make their living. And yet, with the backing of various UN or Government sponsored projects efforts are being made to reverse the decline a process that can be accelerated through the green agenda. Malcolm Harpers book on Inclusive Value Chains in India has some excellent examples of design and initiative redressing this damaging balance. We will cover this and the full environmental impact more fully in future posts. 

The plastic tide is turning as more studies highlight the risks to the environment and personal health. For example, the presence of hazardous chemicals in water, soil and body tissues has been progressively measured at parts per million, then billion, now trillion. Alternatives are emerging. For example, jute is seen as a viable alternative as many markets ban the ubiquitous plastic bag and, there is mounting evidence that plastic waste can play a major role in expanding infrastructure throughout the developing world.

In the 1980’s, Ahmed Khan’s company KK Poly Flex in Bangalore, India, churned out hundreds of thousands of plastic bags and other polymer based packaging material. However, as negative public opinion mounted with the overflowing landfills, Ahmed turned his entrepreneurial imagination to ways in which he could respond to the criticism without losing his hard earned business.

 Today, Ahmed Khan runs a highly successful company, K K Plastic Waste Management that has built more than 1,200 kms of roads using 3,500 tons of plastic waste since 2002 and the first kilometre laid on TV Tower Rd, Bangalore. Waste plastic is fed into shredding machines . One powdered, it is mixed with hot bitumen in a specific proportion to form an aggregate used for laying roads. Since the plastic that is shredded is not burnt, the process eliminates the chances of releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere.

These roads made of polymerized bitumen cost about 3% more than conventional roads but, handle monsoons and everyday wear and tear far better than traditional paved roads; lasting up to 10 years in comparison to the standard 4 to 5 year average of conventional construction. Bangalore generates 30 MT of waste per month and each kilometre of polymerized bitumen needs 2 MT per kilometre. This polymerized approach has been used elsewhere but, the KKWM innovation is to use waste materials and this pushes it to the forefront of efforts to reduce overflowing landfills and other impacts of toxic waste.

As with any major change, this move to deal with the problem of toxic waste was triggered by a disaster. In 2005, when monsoons flooded Mumbai, plastic bags were blamed for clogging the sewers and intensified the impact of the floods. Even India’s cows were not spared as 3,000 died in Lucknow in 2000 due to plastics being ingested into their intestines.

As global population grows from 6 to 9 billion by 2050, the impact of toxic waste on the environment will increase. Ideas such as polymerized bitumen can play a positive role in soaking up the waste from overflowing landfills and, could become a catalyst for other actions to explore traditional crafts and whether their time and viability has returned for them to be part of the transformative green agenda.

Thoughts?