Years ago, Rasool Khan toyed with the idea of adding plastic to bitumen to improve roads. Now, government has adopted the eco-friendly technology
Puja Bhattacharjee | February 6, 2016
Failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. But only a few adhere to this adage and Rasool Khan is one such person. After many failures at eking out a decent living, he succeeded in making roads out of plastic waste. Today when his innovation is being incorporated in the national policy, Rasool has become an icon and inspiration for many.
Now 65, Rasool, admits that he was never a bright student. He flunked his class 10 board examination, gave up studies to join his father’s business in Krishnarajapet, Karnataka. His father, Khasim Khan, had a grocery store and a chemist shop. Khasim was a “principled and systematic” person, recalls Rasool. “He was straight forward with customers,” he says. Young and eager to succeed, Rasool wanted to hoard food grains and release them in the market once the prices go up. Khasim vehemently opposed this. The two did not see eye to eye and often quarrelled over trivial issues. Not willing to live by his father’s rules, Rasool left his house at the age of 20, and came to Bengaluru in 1970 and tried his hand in various small-scale enterprises – silk yarn, footwear and film distribution. But all failed.
Rasool says he had been interested in cinema since he was a child and always wanted to set up a cinema hall. As a first step towards realising this dream, he ventured into film distribution. “I was running multiple businesses but was never very successful in any of them,” he says. The film distribution business broke him; financially and emotionally. “Luck was not on my side. Of the three films I bought, two flopped. The third film, Bollywood blockbuster Umrao Jaan starring Rekha, made big bucks. But my partner cheated me and took away all the money,” he says.
In the early 1990s, Rasool suffered another setback. “My business crashed. I lost everything and was left bankrupt,” he recalls.
In hindsight, he started realising the value of principles in business – his father’s advice. “I realised that lies and success do not go hand in hand. To succeed in any venture, it is important to be systematic and honest,” he recalls.
In 1994, he came across an opportunity which was going to change his life forever. His elder brother Ahmed Khan asked him to join his plastic business, which he had set up a decade ago. With nothing left to lose, Rasool took the offer and joined KK Plastics.
During the 1990s there was a lot of talk about the harmful effects of plastic. The government was even considering a ban on plastic products. This made Rasool a worried man: if plastic was banned, some 100 odd workers in his factory would lose their jobs and his business would collapse. Having seen financial depravity for most of his life, he wanted to save the workers from the same fate. He kept thinking about an alternative use of plastic waste. A chance encounter with an acquaintance gave him his eureka moment. “He drew my attention to a news article which described how plastic can be used to build roads,” he recalls.
Rasool started testing the durability of roads made with plastic by filling a few potholes near his home close to Kanakapura road in Bengaluru. The results were encouraging. His son, an engineering student, took “plastics use in road-making” as his college project. After studying his report, the college concluded that plastic increases life and durability of roads. The Visvesvaraya Technological University asked Rasool to collaborate with Cauvery Asphalts, which provided him logistical support to further study the impact and longevity of such roads.
With their cooperation, he researched the options of using a mixture of bitumen and plastic to lay roads. He tested his idea on two ongoing projects of the company. “We first tested on a 300-metre stretch of a road near Maddur in Mandya district in 2000,” he says. A year later, he again tested his idea on a 500-metre stretch in Varthur near Bengaluru. “Both the roads showed marked improvement in quality,” says Rasool. The Karnataka State Highway Authority and Central Road Research Institute (CRRI) in New Delhi gave favourable feedback to his project.
Buoyed by his success, Rasool then approached the then Karnataka Chief minister SM Krishna, and told him about the innovation. “Krishna was enthused by the idea and took it up immediately,” he says. On April 9, 2002, Krishna inaugurated the first road built with plastic in Raja Rajeshwari Nagar in Bengaluru. He also announced that use of plastic in road construction would be mandatory in the state. “Till date, 3,000 km of plastic road has been laid in Karnataka,” adds Rasool.
The project not only saved the jobs of 100-odd workers at his factory but also gave Rasool a purpose in life. The original plastic manufacturing business at KK Plastics took a backseat as the company started focussing on minimising the damage of plastic waste on the environment. The company now buys plastic waste from the municipal corporation at the rate of '6 per kg, processes and sells it to the contractors at '27 per kg. It is then mixed with bitumen at a high temperature and the mixture is used in laying roads. For Rasool it was not easy to convince the administration to adopt the innovation. “We faced difficulties but that has not stopped us from reaching our goal.”
KK Plastics needs bitumen in order to mix plastic with. “Some contractors made us wait the whole night to prepare the mixture. Some said that they will give us a bill for material purchase but will not use the material,” he recalls. Even now, after more than a decade of trying to popularise plastic roads, Rasool’s work is yet to get due recognition. However, despite occasional setbacks, Rasool has reasons to celebrate.
In November, the government of India made it mandatory for developers to use a mix of plastic waste and bitumen for road construction. The guidelines issued to road developers state that such mixture will have to be used for constructing bitumen roads within 50 km of a city with a population of over five lakh.
“Only 10 percent plastic waste is used in road construction when the capacity is 100 percent,” rues Rasool. Till date, KK Plastics has used 1,600 tonnes of plastic waste in roads. Rasool says initially people were not enthused by the idea. “I am grateful to SM Krishna for giving the idea a push.”
Despite his achievements, Rasool remains indifferent to fame. “I am happy to have contributed in saving the environment,” he says from his Krishnarajapet home, where he was celebrating Pongal with his family when the government of India announced his innovation would be a national policy.
“In this information age, people are constantly bombarded with new information every day. It is difficult for them to remember every person they hear of in the news,” he says. However, he admits that a lot of people know him by his name. “I may not be a popular face but I am a popular name.”
His popularity has crossed Indian shores. Sometime ago, a private delegate from Jamaica came to see him. In India too, bigwigs have come calling. Recently a leading corporate group has shown interest in using his innovation, he says. “Waste plastic will also be used on the 50 percent stretch of the Delhi-Agra expressway,” he says. KK Plastics has been supplying material for laying roads under the pradhan mantri gram sadak yojana (PMGSY) in Karnataka.
Rasool now devotes his time and energy to KK Plastics. “The rate at which we buy plastic waste from the municipal corporation has remained unchanged for the past 12 years. Now the machine segregates the plastic waste automatically followed by grinding and packaging. By modernising the machinery, we have been able to bring down the production cost,” he says. He plans to completely modernise the company by April.
Speaking to Governance Now from his village in Krishnarajapet, Rasool says his brother Ahmed Khan’s contribution to this project far outweighed his. “There are hundreds of researchers like me. Unless researchers can commercialise their innovation, sooner or later it dies,” he says. “I struggled to bring the idea into the mainstream. If he had not backed me financially, it would have never taken off,” he adds.
The flip side
About 1,000 tonnes of bitumen is used per km of road construction. If the bitumen mixture has eight percent plastic, according to CRRI, some 80 tonnes of plastic can be used per km of road.
Swati Sambyal, who works on waste management at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, says, “The full implementation of policy will lead to effective utilisation of plastic. It would no more be waste but a resource,” she adds.
Today plastic is one of the biggest polluters on earth. According to the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated every day in the country. Only 9,000 tonnes of it gets collected. The rest either lies on roads as litter or goes to dump sites. Due to inadequate recycling, the waste generated keeps increasing. Disposing the waste has become a major concern. It is estimated that last year alone, nine million tonnes of plastic waste ended up in the oceans putting marine life at risk. The waste which ends up at landfills forms a poisonous leachate mixture which percolates and contaminates groundwater.
Sambyal, however, adds that there is no clarity on how plastic waste will be collected and channelised. She is also concerned if plastic waste below 40 microns will be used for roads because that “is not recyclable and ends up being burnt in landfill sites”.
Rasool asserts that KK Plastics does not discriminate while collecting plastic waste. “We have briefed municipal workers to collect all kinds of plastic waste, even Kurkure packets.”
The challenges may increase when the policy is implemented across the country. “Waste pickers do not pick non-recyclable plastics. They will have to be briefed about the policy to make it a success,” says Amitaayu Varma of Chintan, an NGO which works with wastepickers and other recyclers.
Critics feel that though use of plastic waste in road laying is a good concept it is not environmentally viable in the long run. Himanshu Vashist, managing director of Inckah Infrastructure Technologies, has been in the road laying business for long. He says, “The hot mix plants which are used for laying bitumen roads are highly polluting. Following a supreme court directive, they had been shifted out to the periphery of the city. It mitigates the pollution to some extent but not entirely,” he says. To use plastic waste in road construction, the plastic has to be added to the hot mix. “It is the same as burning plastic. The high temperature (160 degrees celsius) of the mix burns the plastic, adding to pollution,” he adds.
Dr Suneel Pandey, director, green growth and resource efficiency division, TERI, is aware of this drawback. But he feels that for now it is the only viable option for solid waste management. “Hot mix of bitumen is far more toxic and releases a wide range of carcinogenic hydrocarbons. The plastic used in this mix will not be more than 10-15 percent,” he says.
Rasool says that such concerns are baseless. “When added to the hot mix, the plastic melts; it does not burn,” he says. “A negligible portion might get burnt but it certainly offsets the widespread plastic pollution,” he adds.
Varma of Chintan wonders if the policy will make any difference. “It will certainly make some impact as 10-12 percent plastic waste can be used in road laying. But I am sure they are not going to rework all the roads,” he says. He cautions that the whole initiative will be undone if virgin plastic is manufactured solely for the roads.
Rasool remains unfazed by these concerns. To him the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. “Plastic roads might cost a little more initially but in the long run, they will save the exchequer a lot of money,” he says. He also points out that in absence of plastics, the rest of waste can be used to make organic manure. “The government is giving subsidy on chemical fertilisers. Imagine, if manure from waste is used instead, how much money we will be saving,” he says.
(The story appears in the February 1-15, 2016 issue)
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