Indian chemistry professor shows that re-purposed plastic can be good for the environment.
At 73, Dr Rajagopalan Vasudevan is roughly as old as the mass production of plastic. But that is not the reason why the chemistry professor has a soft spot for the much-maligned material.
“Plastic isn’t the problem,” the venerable scientist says in his office in the southern Indian city of Madurai. “We are. Plastic wouldn’t clog our oceans or our landfills if we didn’t throw it there in the first place. And there is so much we can do with it instead.”
He should know. In January this year, Dr Vasudevan was honoured with one of India’s highest civilian awards, the Padma Shri, for his groundbreaking research on re-using waste plastic – in a very unusual way.
The idea emerged from his workshop at the Thiagarajar College of Engineering in Madurai as far back as 2001. Disturbed by calls to ban plastic, which he believed was important to poor people, he wanted to find a solution to the growing environmental challenges it raised.
“Ban plastic and it can severely affect the quality of life for a low-income family,” he says. “But if you burn it or bury it, it’s bound to affect the environment.”
And so, he began a series of experiments in his workshop to discover effective disposal techniques. In a molten condition, he found that plastic had the property of an excellent binder. Acting on the principle that like attracts like, Dr Vasudevan looked at another chemical of similar nature: bitumen, a black tarry substance that was being combined with gravel to lay roads.
“Bitumen, a highly heterogeneous mixture of hydrocarbons is in effect, composed of polymerssimilar to plastic,” he says. When molten plastic was added to stone and bitumen mix, Dr Vasudevan found that, true to its nature, plastic stuck fast and bound both materials together.
Today, self-help groups from various states across India, local citizens and schools are engaged in helping Dr Vasdevan collect waste plastic.
“It’s time we stop seeing plastic as the enemy and turn it into our biggest resource,” says Dr Vasudevan.