Recycling single-use plastics is a major challenge for India. Some of the technological innovations patented by the Indian Oil Corporation’s Faridabad Research and Development Laboratory look promising in this endeavour.
There are three ways of treating plastics in the formal sector. First, is the mechanical pathway of converting waste plastic into useful petrochemicals like polyethylene or polypropylene. Second, the chemical way or the pyrolysis process which is essentially the thermal decomposition of plastic material at elevated temperature in an inert atmosphere. And, lastly, creating biodegradable plastic.
However, single-use plastics pose a problem. “The real challenge is in treating these multi-layered sachets because there is no technological pathway [solutions] to recycle them. And these are the plastics that are littering our, home, environment and the planet,” says S.S.V. Ramakumar, director, research and development and board member of Indian Oil Corporation. The company claims that “it has many ways of recycling non-recyclable plastics.”
So, how is IOC, the second-largest producer of plastics in India, trying to solve the problem? It has taken some innovative steps in the chemical recyclable pathway by converting waste plastics into waxes, which are value-added products. “We can also produce specialty chemicals like styrene, from waste plastics, which is currently being imported,” Ramakumar.
Waste plastics can also be used to create alternative feedstocks like converting plastic to diesel. Although there are various technologies, the quality of the diesel can be suspect. “But what we have patented is a technological pathway that converts plastic waste into Bharat VI fuel and we are trying to scale it up in the refinery locations,” says IOC’s R&D director. All transport fuels have to be BS VI-emission-norms compliant by April 1, 2020.
Waste plastic can also be converted into bitumen for road-paving through the mechanical pathway route. The company has paved a bituminous road on the premises of the R&D centre incorporating 3% waste plastics. The company has worked jointly with the New Delhi-based research organisation, the Central Road Research Institute, to develop this plastic-infused bitumen. “But we can easily take it to 8% (the upper limit for plastic content in bitumen road) and beyond given the amount of waste plastic available in the country and it will also bring down the cost considerably,’’ says Ramakumar.
India’s per capita consumption of plastics is around 11 kg a day compared to 109 kg in the US and 80 kg in China. Of the 26,000 tonnes of waste plastic generated a day, nearly 60%, or 15,600 tonnes, is brought back into the system through recycling in registered facilities across the country. Moreover, 20% of plastic waste is being recycled in the unorganised sector and another 10% at home. So, the real challenge is the treatment of the remaining 10% clogging the landfills of the country.
Moreover, the company is using waste milk pouches to develop a recycled polybag, which can be used for carrying things—all aimed at achieving plastic neutrality and a circular economy.