It was a marriage of two environmental scourges, plastic and bitu-men. One more so than the other.
If plastic bag-maker K Ahmed Khan did not see it that way, it at least provided him with a solution to the puzzling question of what can be done with plastic waste.
“There was a lobby against plastic bags in 1996 and people wanted them banned because there was no solution to the plastic menace,” says Khan, who chanced upon just that when
he saw workers filling a pothole
with bitumen. “I thought, why we couldn’t mix plastic with bitumen, both of which are non-biodegradable, to lay roads?”
With that, Khan started off on trials with his younger brother Rasool and nephew Amjad. But he found that plastic, though it melted in bitumen when it was heated, later regrouped into a solid mass.
“Then, we added some local ingredients and had a breakthrough,” he mentions, cagey enough to not disclose what did the trick.
K K Plastic Waste Management, Khan’s company, in 1997-98 wanted to test the efficacy of polymerised bitumen. “So without the permission of the government or contractors, we filled up a few potholes with bitumen and plastic and it worked,” he says, with a hint of joy in his voice.
But this anecdotal evidence far from sufficed for contractors, who wanted concrete research-based proof. This forced the Khans to head to R V College of Engineering in Bangalore to sponsor a study on their idea. This was followed by similar studies at Bangalore University and Central Road Research Institute, part arm of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), in New Delhi. All studies ruled in favour of polymerised bitumen as suitable to lay roads with, according to Khan.
“Then we were asked by the Bangalore Municipal Corporation to partner them in first laying 40 km in and around Bangalore, and then another 500 km,” Khan states. K K Plastic just supplies the bitumen-plastic mix to contractors and is not involved in the actual laying of roads.
To lay a one km long and 3.5-metre wide road, nearly 2-2.5 tonnes of plastic is required. That is 8% of the bitumen required.
“Now, we collect 4-5 tonnes of plastic everyday in Bangalore,” says the 63-year-old Bachelor of Commerce from St Joseph’s College. The company pays rag-pickers Rs 8-10 for a kg of plastic.
In the last nine years, K K Plastic has helped build 1,800 km of roads in and around Bangalore and has picked up a slew of awards. But it’s not all hunky-dory.
“The time for appreciation is over, now we need companies to come forward and take this to other parts of the country,” Khan avers, adding he is quite open to partnerships.
Money is a problem too for the company, which currently turns over Rs 3-4 crore a year. “We are thinking of approaching venture capitalists,” he says.
On the bright side, the firm has got enquires from different cities. Khan has already demonstrated his idea in Hyderabad and Mumbai.
“Plastic is here to stay, plastic bags are just 0.1% of the total plastic used. Will a ban on them make a big difference?” rhetorically questions Khan. He is quick to say that he does not want to be seen as being pro-plastic, but “practically speaking, it’s inevitable.”