For as far as the eye can see, there’s stinking, smoking, untreated garbage. It’s concentrated in the municipal dump, in the South Indian city of Madurai, but not contained by it. The surrounding fields are also piled with trash. Stray dogs nibble at mounds of rotting food. The trees are denuded and covered with shredded plastic, the blue and pink and yellow bags like some kind of sinister confetti.
The road to the dump, and beyond it to Madurai’s airport, is like a Hollywood vision of dystopian ruin: lifeless, black, choked with human refuse. And that’s why Rajagopalan Vasudevan’s enthusiasm is so jarring. As he makes his way through the rubbish, he’s like a child on a treasure hunt. “Wonderful resource,” he says, admiring a jumble of plastic bags, jerrycans, and torn food packets. “With all this plastic, I could lay the whole road to the airport.”
It is difficult to exaggerate India’s garbage problem. Jairam Ramesh, the nation’s former environment minister, has said that if there were a “Nobel prize for dirt and filth,” India would win it. As much as 40 percent of the country’s municipal waste remains uncollected, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of the waste that is collected, almost none is recycled. Most of it sits in open dumps such as the one in Madurai, leaching into the soil and contaminating groundwater. Some of it is burned, releasing dioxins and other toxic chemicals into the air.
Much of India’s garbage is made up of plastic—a scourge of the nation’s new consumer economy. The country’s Central Pollution Control Board says more than 15,000 tons of plastic waste are generated daily. Although the nation’s per capita consumption of plastic is low compared with that of the U.S., it’s expected to double over the next five years as India continues to develop. This poses huge environmental, social, and economic challenges. As the Supreme Court of India recently observed: “We are sitting on a plastic time bomb.”
Vasudevan sees an opportunity. A professor of chemistry at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, near Madurai, he insists that plastic gets a bad rap. Rather than an incipient environmental calamity, plastic, in Vasudevan’s opinion, is a “gift from the gods”; it’s up to humans to use it wisely. And he’s 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 recent years his method has been gaining recognition. He’s become known as Plastic Man and travels throughout India instructing engineers how to apply it. The college holds a patent for his technique but often licenses it for free. To date, more than 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) of plastic roads have been laid in at least 11 states. The Central Pollution Control Board and the Indian Roads Congress, two leading government bodies, have endorsed the method.
Almitra Patel, one of India’s leading experts on garbage, who has advised several state governments on their waste policies, considers Vasudevan’s technology a “win-win-win.” It consumes an unwanted and mostly nonrecyclable resource; it results in stronger roads; and because it replaces as much as 15 percent of more expensive bitumen in the mix used to lay roads, the technology also holds the potential to lower the cost of infrastructure.
She adds that one of the chief advantages of Vasudevan’s method is that it can accommodate the multilayered wrappings often used to pack snacks such as chips and cookies. These wrappings (typically consisting of a layer each of plastic, polyester, and aluminum) make up an increasingly large volume of waste in the country. They’re just about impossible to recycle, but they can easily be shredded and reused in Vasudevan’s roads.
“It’s really a wonderful situation,” Patel says. “I think it is an absolutely transformational technology that could clean up India overnight.”
Another advantage of Vasudevan’s method is its simplicity. It requires no significant technical knowledge and no large investments or changes to existing road-laying procedures. His whole operation is a good example of the Indian method known as jugaad, or “frugal innovation.” Jugaad makes a virtue of necessity: It extols the work-around, the shortcut that uses (and sometimes improves on) limited resources. “I do it all the Indian way,” Vasudevan says. “What is the use to spend thousands of rupees when we can do it much more cheaply?”