Can India and Bhutan’s Success With ‘Plastic Roads’ Be Emulated By Pakistan?

IRSHAD SALIM (JUN 30, 2018): More than 34,000km of plastic roads have been built in India, mostly in rural areas, according to World Economic Forum report. A new report, however, states that the actual length of such roads using the innovative, home-grown technique runs for more than 100,000km as of October.

The new road building technique for the 21st century has proved to be a durable solution, winning support among scientists and policymakers as well as neighboring countries like Bhutan.

According to WEF, more than half of the roads in the southern state of Tamil Nadu are plastic. This road surface is increasingly popular as it makes the roads more resilient to searing heat. The melting point for plastic roads is around 66°C, compared to 50°C for conventional roads.

Using shredded plastic waste to produce polymer-based glue is a cheaper alternative to conventional plastic additives for road surfaces, — they are not only greener, but are also stronger and maintenance-free — they could last about three times as long as conventional road structures, according to new research.

Every kilometer of plastic road uses the equivalent of a million plastic bags, saving around one ton of asphalt, a byproduct of crude oil. Each kilometer costs roughly 8% less than a conventional road, and unlike the latter, it does not develop any cracks or potholes, and can withstand major flood, several monsoons, heat waves and non-stop traffic in the form of cars, trucks and auto rickshaws.

And plastic roads help create work. When fisherman in India’s southern state of Kerala go fishing in the sea, and their trawlers end up scooping out huge amounts of plastic along with the fish. Until recently the fishermen would simply throw the plastic junk back into the water

But last summer Kerala’s fisheries ministry started a scheme to change this. The state government launched a campaign called Clean Sea, which trains fishermen to collect the plastic and bring it back to shore.

In Clean Sea’s first 10 months, fisherman have removed 25 tons of plastic from the sea, including 10 tons of plastic bags and bottles, according to a UN report on the scheme.

As well as the Keralaite fishing crews, teams of on-land plastic pickers across India collect the plastic waste. They sell their plastic to the many small plastic shredding businesses that have popped up across the country with government subsidies — it’s a big business as India’s plastic consumption per capita is 11kg. That translates into a humongous figure of 14.564 million tons a year.

Why is the number so huge? Research that shows 90% of the plastic waste in the world’s oceans is carried there by just 10 rivers – two of which are in India.

According to a study by the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research, the river Indus and the Ganges carry the second and sixth highest amounts of plastic debris to the ocean. Five rivers span out of the Indus — three feed into Pakistan’s Indus basin and flow into the Arabian Sea, while two flow from the north in southeasterly direction toward India.

The Indian Ocean, meanwhile, is choked with the second highest amount of plastic out of all of the world’s oceans. WWF-Pakistan studies reveal that 65 per cent of garbage that litter beaches along Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast consist of plastics — not only the beaches of Karachi but others such as Kund Malir and Gwadar are also littered with plastic pollution.

Back in 2015, the Indian government announced  that plastic roads would be the default method of construction for most city streets, part of a $11 billion overhaul of the country’s roads and highways. Urban areas with more than 500,000 people will now be required to construct roads using waste plastic. This is also helping to create employment, since small companies are springing up to shred plastic waste needed to make the polymer-based glue.

Can rest of the littoral states dotting the Indian Ocean follow the example? If they did so by combining political pressure with entrepreneurial ventures, perhaps the region will contribute towards a chance of avoiding the predicted catastrophe of there being more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

In a related development, VolkerWessels, a construction services firm headquartered in Hollad, also wants to roll out plastic roads. Their idea involves recycling plastic waste into lightweight, prefabricated modules with hollow interiors that can be fitted with cables and plastic pipes and allow excess water to drain.

Because the pre-fabricated units will be easy to transport, assemble and maintain, and the lighter weight, it also means the ground will be less prone to subsidence. The firm believes that due to it light weight and modular installation, the roads could be built to last three times longer.

Can such technology — Indian or Holland’s, which would also enable a new local employment sub-sector be dovetailed by Pakistan into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor while building new or rehabilitating existing motorways and highways associated with the CPEC — $11 billion to $14 billion is said to be the transport infrastructure price-tag of the CPEC.

According to some experts, it may be hard to implement at this stage, but the concept can be used in cities and rural areas.

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