Professor Rajagopalan Vasudevan has turned the common man’s trash into concrete treasure. The dean of chemistry at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai, Vasudevan is usually in unfussy clothing, a naaman running across his forehead and a big smile on his face. While profiling him for Bloomberg Businessweek, author Akash Kapur had called him India’s Plastic Man because he has “devised a way to transform common plastic litter — not only thicker acrylics and bottles but also grocery bags and wrappers — into a partial substitute for bitumen in asphalt”. In short, Vasudevan has taken the countrywide problem of plastic rubbish and used it to solve the countrywide problem of potholed roads. He’s the author of one of those rare stories in which everyone — the world of science, the environment and our cities — comes out happy.
“The common man is impatient and careless when it comes to dealing with plastic,” Vasudevan says when I meet him in his laboratory. “People should dispose of plastic properly so that it can be recycled for useful creations.” An interview with him comes with a civic test — he will offer chocolates and wait to see what you do with the wrappers. In Madurai, as in many other Indian cities, garbage is visible in every nook and corner. “Organic and non-organic trash bins should be maintained in each avenue. My hope is with the students — more than 25,000 students from government schools helped me collect waste plastic recently,” he says.
The process of turning plastic into roads is “facile”, according to Vasudevan. “Plastic waste is fragmented using the shredder. The aggregate mix and the bitumen are heated to 165 degrees and 160 degrees respectively. The stones are laminated with the plastic coating that makes the bonding tenacious and the coated aggregate is mixed with the bitumen and used for road construction,” he says. The advantages of these plasticised roads are manifold. “The road is resistant to heat and cold and its life stretches beyond ten years with cost-effective maintenance. That saves millions in construction costs. The lifespan of a tar road is hardly one year. Extreme temperatures and rainfall dichotomise the asphalt surface. The central government is allotting nearly Rs 3000 crores each year for road maintenance. Plastic roads, on the other hand, need no maintenance for at least seven years. I could also recycle the damaged asphalt surface to connect service roads.” Laying one kilometre of a 3.75-metre single-lane road requires about ten tonnes of bitumen, which costs about Rs 50,000 per tonne. If you substitute even one tonne with plastic (about 1 lakh carry bags), the cost gets reduced.
It isn’t like governments and private bodies don’t see these benefits. In her 2012-13 election manifesto, Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha had set aside Rs 100 crore for plastic roads. In Jamshedpur, a city without a municipal corporation, several roads have already been built with the help of plastic and the Tatas. “I didn’t have a single penny at the beginning, but now millions of funds are being offered by the government,” says Vasudevan. “The NRRDA [National Rural Roads Development Agency] has allotted a good amount of funds to each state for plastic road construction. Also, the Indian Road Congress has approved my concept and given their coding for construction. We have already laid nearly 10,000km across India.”
While many members of our scientific community choose to leave India for better prospects, Vasudevan stayed to initiate the plastic revolution. “I am not a mercenary to sell my invention to foreign countries. At the same time, I am disappointed I have to pay money to renew my patent rights for my own invention,” he says. “At a conference, I was once asked by a reporter, ‘How is it possible for you to invent something like this when no one in the West has?’ I told him, ‘That [cynicism] is the reason scientists are failing to emerge from India.’ A farmer from Theni [a district 84km from Madurai] had visited me once just to congratulate me. That is my Nobel prize.”