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  • Plastic

    solution for impending energy crisis

    By Aakanksha Kumar

    It clogs sewers, chokes rivers, undermines

    soil fertility, and even finds its way into the stomachs of cattle…

    Yet, ask consumers and they vouch for its convenience, cost-effectiveness,

    and availability. The omnipresent plastic bag may have become

    an environmentalist's nightmare but is difficult to displace from

    our daily lives.

    The type of litter

    we generate and the approximate time it takes to degenerate

    Type of litterApproximate time

    taken to degenerate

    Organic waste1-2 weeks
    Paper 10-30 days
    Cotton cloth 2-5 months
    Wood 10-15 years
    Woollens 1 year

    aluminium, and other

    metal items like cans



    Plastic bags1 million years

    Glass bottles Undetermined

    Mounting plastic heaps, predominantly

    propagated by the emergent 'throwaway culture' raise concerns

    about the disposal of this escalating nightmare. While there have

    been legislative attempts to restrict the use of plastic in daily

    life, public response has been lukewarm. Researchers have tried

    to address the problem by turning their attention to biodegradable

    plastic, which can be slowly devoured by tiny microbes. The problem

    of littering and diminishing dumping grounds, however, lingers


    In a bid to address this Catch 22

    situation, the Delhi-based scientists have come up with a novel

    technology that converts non-biodegradable plastic wastes into

    an eco-friendly green fuel. And, unlike plastic, the fuel burns

    easy, is sans sooty flames, and can be stored for ages too.

    The rationale of using plastics as

    fuel, says Dr R K Khandal, Director, Sriram Institute of Industrial

    Research, New Delhi, is that they are derived from petroleum products,

    and are thus good reservoirs of energy, comparable to coal and

    fuel oils. But, unlike coal and oil, plastic is difficult to burn,

    emits a lot of smoke and soot, and even drips while burning.

    Recommendations from the

    international conference

    Plastics and Environment: opportunities and challenges,

    24-25 February 2003, New Delhi, organized

    by Sriram Institute for Industrial Research, Delhi

    Encouraging use of plastic waste in road construction

    Emphasizing on

    converting plastic waste to liquid fuel

    Blending plastics

    with other substrates to get value-added products

    Developing technology

    to use non-recyclable plastic as fuel

    Promoting indigenous

    technology to use biodegradable plastic

    Levying cess

    on plastic users

    Carrying out

    mass awareness campaigns to sensitize the populace on new


    'What we have done is to explore

    ways to improve upon the properties of plastic as fuel. We prepared

    different types of fuels by simply adding wastes like sawdust,

    waste paper, leaf, and coal dust. All the blended fuels showed

    marked improvements in ease of burning. This is because wastes

    help to increase the porosity of plastic that traps oxygen, helping

    it to burn', says Dr R K Raina, who has done extensive work on

    the project.

    'This is for the first time in India

    that an attempt has been made to harness the stored energy of

    plastic as fuel,' explains Dr Khandal. 'If we simply burn plastic

    or leave it to be degraded by microbes, we lose energy. Besides,

    both these processes ultimately result in the production of carbon

    dioxide, which is responsible for global warming,' he adds.

    Experiments to convert plastic into

    fuel began in China in the early 1970s when oil prices suddenly

    increased dramatically. Today China has a number of factories

    that produce fuel from plastic but most of these establishments

    are small and lack coordination in waste accumulation; also, the

    fuel produced is liquid. What adds value to the Indian process

    is that it is not only environmentally friendly but also addresses

    the problem of malodour and low stability of liquid fuel produced.

    Incidentally, the technology adopted

    to achieve this innovation is very simple. Plastic waste is heated

    to a very high temperature of 110 ºC, mixed with non-plastic

    wastes, compacted, and cut into blocks, which have a long shelf

    life. 'With low moisture levels and ash content and higher calorific

    values than coal, the blended fuels can easily substitute coal,'

    says Dr Raina. The technology, which is awaiting commercialization,

    has a market for both the industrial and domestic sectors. The

    industries that this technology can benefit are the ones that

    are energy-intensive: cement, sugar, brick, ceramics, also power

    stations and so on. It would also be especially useful for villages,

    where women can easily blend agricultural wastes with plastic

    waste into blocks of fuel and store it for long.

    'So, at negligible costs, this eco-friendly

    fuel can reduce dependence on coal, as well as help minimize environmental

    perils,' says Dr Khandal. A great leap into the future indeed,

    for India ranks sixth in the total energy consumption in the world,

    consuming about 20% of the global average. And the spiralling

    rate of development is an indicator that requirement of energy

    is bound to grow at a much faster pace.

    Currently, 75% of the coal consumed

    in India is utilized for power generation. It is estimated that

    our coal production would plateau in the next 10 years, and the

    reserves would hardly last another 40 years. The oil and gas reserves

    also can endure the onslaught for another 20 years. In such a

    grim scenario, the only reserves to fall back upon are renewables.

    The key challenge that we face today is to ensure their adequate

    availability, in a cost-effective and eco-friendly way. With the

    growth of the plastic industry being higher in India than elsewhere

    in the world, this represents an untapped area that can easily

    be exploited.

    Among various sectors, packaging

    presents a major area where the demand has been continuous and

    growing. It covers about 52% of the total plastic generated in

    the country. 'Converting the locally available post-use plastic

    feedstock is a very economical and attractive option,' says Dr

    Raina. Besides, the technique can also be used to convert municipal

    solid wastes that are generously sprinkled with plastic waste,

    as fuel. For a country, where this figure touches about 36.5 million

    tonnes per year, the potential is immense.

    It seems we will literally have to

    go down in the dumps to seek solutions to tackle the dual problem:

    the growing plastic menace and the dwindling energy reserves.


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