Plastic Roads

This year India was the host for the celebration of the World Environment Day (WED). The theme of the WED was Beat Plastic Pollution.

Ministry of Environment & Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC) was in charge. The WED celebrations were held all over the country and a 4-day conclave was held in the Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi with an exhibition.

I bumped into the Mr. Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister for Road Transport & Highways during a lunch at the India International Centre. The Minister greeted me and asked “ Dr Modak, how come in Delhi?”.

I told the Minister that I was there to speak at a panel discussion organized by MoEFCC on WED.  I also told him that I have to congratulate the MoEFCC for effectively spending 350 million Indian Rs on WED in just 4 days! What a splendid performance of spending” I said.

Of course, to Mr. Gadkari, such an expenditure was peanuts compared to the billions of Rs that his Ministry is spending on surface transport, essentially building roads. In October 2017, the Indian government announced an investment of 6.9 trillion rupees ($11 billion) to build 83,677km of roads over the next five years.

So, the Minister just smirked on my appreciation of MoEFCC.

He then said in a hushed tone. “Well Dr Modak, MoEFCC only talks. But my ministry delivers. Do you know that the real mover and shaker in addressing the plastic menace in India is the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways? This years WED on plastic should have been celebrated by my Ministry and not by MoEFCC”

I was surprised. All I knew was building good roads was necessary for the ruling party but if built without sensitivity and responsibility then the roads could adversely impact environment and the people.

So, I asked “Minister Sir, What is the connection between roads and plastic?”

“Dr Modak, we use plastic waste in the bitumen while making roads. In 2002, a technology was developed by Rajagopalan Vasudevan, a chemistry professor at Thiagarajan College of Engineering in the southern city of Madurai. It uses finely-shredded plastic waste that is added to heated bitumen”

I later learnt that plastic waste in asphalting can include anything from sweet wrappers to shopping bags except Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC). The mix reduces the quantity of bitumen required by 10 per cent. Further, the Plastic roads were found to be stronger and maintenance-free. These roads could last about three times compared to the conventional road structures.  “All good” I said to myself “Then we should generate more plastic waste to reap all these benefits”.

In November 2015, the Indian government made it mandatory to use waste plastic in building most highways. According to this directive, road developers have to use waste plastic along with hot mixes for constructing bitumen roads within 50 km of periphery of any city that has a population of over 500,000. However, in recently released guidelines for developers, when waste plastic is not available, then the developer has to seek the road transport & highways ministry’s approval for constructing only bitumen roads.

“But Dr Modak, we insist on the use of plastic waste in making roads” said the Minister.

According to a report from World Economic Forum the length of Indian roads using plastic waste now runs for more than 100,000km across 11 States across India. Isn’t that impressive? Indian Road Congress has come up with guidelines on use of waste plastic in hot bitumen mixes

Minister said that using recycled plastic to build roads not only curbs plastic pollution but also creates jobs. The waste pickers collect the plastic litter. This plastic is shredded in machines which are subsidised by the Government. The waste pickers that mostly consist women sell the shredded plastic to the road builders. Tamil Nadu was the first State in India to actively develop a cottage industry around shredded plastic.

“Thus, job creation for waste pickers and business to small entrepreneurs is an added benefit of building plastic roads – You know very well – generating employment is the current focus of our Prime Minister”  Mr Gadkari said. He was absolutely right.

I thought of checking the “downside” of plastic roads. I understood the concern about PVC. Thermal degradation of PVC results in the emissions of harmful gases (like hydrochloride acid). Unfortunately, PVC is virtually indistinguishable from other plastics. Further, heating PP, PS or PE plastics is also not that safe. Studies reveal that heating PP, PE and PS releases moderate to highly toxic emissions consisting  carbon monoxide, acrolein, formic acid, acetone, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, toluene and ethylbenzene. Workers engaged in road-laying are particularly at risk from these emissions. But in Prof Vasudevan’s technology,  shredded plastic is melted with low heat to avoid such emissions.

However there could be unforeseen risks. If the plastic roads get old or are poorly built, then such roads can “leak” plastic fragments into the soil and eventually into waterways as a result of photodegradation. The plastic fragments break down when exposed to environmental factors such as light and heat. These minute (less than 5 mm) plastic particles are called as microplastics.

Remember, that plastics are not merely molecules of carbon and hydrogen. To convert them into daily-use products, chemical additives are added to give them flexibility (softeners and plasticisers), to delay degradation due to heat or sunlight (stabilisers and anti-oxidants), to give them colour, to make them fire proof (flame retardants), to give them body (fillers). The toxicity of most of these chemicals is not known. But the few chemicals that have been studied – like phthalates – a category of chemicals used as softeners, or brominated flame retardants are highly toxic. They can cause birth defects and cancer, and hormonal problems particularly for women. Because they persist in the environment and can build up in the food chain, even seemingly insignificant amounts in the environment can grow to deadly levels in our bodies or in the food we eat. So, the microplastic is certainly not that innocent.

In the past few years, scientists have found microplastics in our soil, tap water (even bottled water), food and even in the air we breathe. And there’s growing concern about the potential health risks they pose to humans, animals and the fish. Burying plastic in roads may not be therefore a solution over long run. Plastic in roads is merely hiding and perhaps ready to escape as microplastic at some stage of the life cycle. But if at all this happens then we don’t know when. Ignorance on this potent risk can be a bliss.  We certainly need more long term and/or field simulated research studies.

But then what is the alternative? Doing nothing could however be more harmful.

One possibility could be to develop plastic-wood (saw dust) composites for the railway sleepers. I was aware of the railway sleepers recently made by Advanced Plastic Recycling in Adelaide, Australia using HDPE and the saw dust. This option may be pursued as the scale of application is big  and there is no issue regarding release of micro-plastic.

Of course the priority should be to reduce plastic waste at the source in the first place, but I wasn’t sure how effective would our bans on plastic be to reduce manufacturing and consumption of plastic and will there be a behavior change.

I said “Thank you Sir and goodbye” to the Minister.

As a kind gesture, Minister asked his Senior Adviser to reach me to the lobby.

While in the elevator, the Adviser was telling me  “Dr Modak, we are happy that China has come up with “Sword policy” to refuse entry of recyclables – that includes a huge waste stream of plastic. Perhaps, this plastic waste may get diverted to India (legally or illegally) and it will help us build more plastic roads that will cheaper, more effective and last longer ”

I hardly heard him. I was lost in my own thoughts on this apparent plastic paradox.


Every day, nearly 4,000 shipping containers full of recyclables leave US ports bound for China. China sends to the US toys, clothes and electronics, In return, some of America’s largest exports to China are paper, plastic and aluminium. From January 1 of this year China is enforcing its new “National Sword” policy, that is considered as the “Green Fence”. It bans 24 types of solid waste, including various plastics and unsorted mixed papers, and sets a much tougher standard for contamination levels. China is essentially saying that the country would no longer serve as the world’s trash dump. The ban will undoubtedly hurt recycling operators in China that rely on the import of raw materials such as recyclable waste. But it appears that delivering a cleaner China is perhaps paramount to the politicians of the Communist Party.  What is going to be India’s take? Do you think India too should “Green Fence” and pull out its Sword?


Cover image sourced from https://hindi.news18.com/news/madhya-pradesh/indore/indore-to-have-plastic-roads-676142.html


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Teaching Environment with Meta Data

I went to see my Professor friend on a Sunday morning. Idea was to chit chat and have delicious dosai prepared by his wife with a tangy green chutney and ending the breakfast with a strong south Indian filter coffee.

Professor was busy as usual and was glued to his laptop doing some frantic Google search.

I asked “Professor, what’s your search today, You look real desperate”.

“Well Dr Modak, I am looking for data on sales of Asthalin in the city of Mumbai over past 10 years.” Professor responded while glaring at the computer screen

Some of you may know that Asthalin is a product of Cipla Pharmaceuticals that has been a life saver inhaler to combat asthma.

I was surprised about Professors interest in sale of Asthalin.

“I am teaching the subject of air pollution tomorrow and I badly need this data” Professor said

I did not want to disturb him and so kept shut.

A few minutes passed by and Professor seemed to have found that he was looking for.

“Aha, I finally hit on the data I wanted, now let us get to the dining table for the breakfast” Professor seemed to be relived

While relishing the Mysore plain dosai, I asked Professor the connection …

“Well, Dr Modak, You probably know that I always teach the subject of environment with the help of meta data.” Professor said.

Meta data – what’s that Professor? I knew a bit about this term, but wanted to have a better explanation

“Metadata is simply data about data. It means it is a description and context of the data. It helps to organize, find and understand data. In most instances, meta data is used to search data, but I use meta data to make understand data better.” Professor explained

Take a case of continuous air quality monitoring data. When we see sudden spikes in the concentration levels, then you may check the “meta data” that tracks the “surround” situation e.g. may be a truck was standing next to the monitoring station puffing emissions over 10 minutes. This meta data could be in the form of a video file that records the surrounding as much as the air pollutant concentration is recorded by the monitoring instrument. Another example could be an instance of a sudden fall in the particulate concentration. This  may indicate a shower of rain (like a spell of a drizzle) washing out the particulates. So, records of the rain events become a useful meta data.

“Oh yes,  understood Professor” I said. “So, what you are saying is that meta data is required or is very important to understand the environmental data we monitor. In many instances. we don’t pay attention to this kind of data. We don’t record or we overlook”.

“Indeed. So, tomorrow when I teach air pollution, I will be showing map of city of Mumbai with air quality trends over 12 monitoring stations and show at the same time the information or trend in the sale of asthalin inhaler at some of the major chemists. Probably, the air quality (especially the particulates) near to the chemist shops may be correlated with the sale of asthalin. But I am not very sure. I plan to show last 10-year trend between the two, based on monthly average data. It may throw interesting relationship between PM10 or PM2.5 or ratio between PM2.5 and PM10 with the sale of asthalin”

Professor showed me a map that he was attempting to prepare. I thought this was a great idea to make students understand the air pollution in Mumbai and raise a debate. Merely looking at the air pollutant concentrations wouldn’t  perhaps give a deeper understanding of the problem.

I  thought of similar associations. I remembered that we got some statistics from Western Railways in Mumbai about the frequency of cable coating they had to follow to combat cable corrosion. When Mumbai had moderately high Sulphur dioxide concentration, the frequency of cable recoating had increased. A plot between average seasonal Sulphur dioxide concentration and expenditures on per unit length for recoating showed an interesting proportional relationship.

Professor continued. ”There are known relationships that show coupling e.g. per capita income and per capita waste generation. So richer you get more becomes the waste generation. But if you start digging more, you may find even more interesting relationships. For instance, value of goods purchased through e-commerce websites may explain the rising fraction of plastic in the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). So, it may worth to expose the student to the meta data on e-commerce platforms to understand the changing composition of the MSW. Patterns and modes of consumption help to know the generation of waste”

Professor was right. I remembered that increasing cost of raw water treatment reflected the deteriorating quality of river water. More dosage of flocculants and disinfectant had to be used to combat the pollution released upstream of the raw intake works.

Professor had another example. In the city of Hubli in India, he had found that high concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in drinking water were related to the insurance claims made by patients for the treatment of kidney stones.  That showed serious health and economic implications to justify investing in a TDS management plan.

Sometimes we assess the effectiveness of a regulation and a degree of enforcement by examining the trend in the fines collected or number of non-compliance cases filed. I analyzed the data on the number of cases filed to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) over 5 years across India and this statistic showed the “hot spots” or the “troubled areas” that we should worry.

Extent of night illumination at industrial estates (detected through the satellite imageries), the amount of octroi collected on the road entering the industrial estate and the water cess records provide a good measure to assess the resource intensity. These are interesting elements of meta data to serve as a proxy. You can then compare the resource intensities and potential environmental impacts of two industrial estates on this basis.

Professor said that it is necessary that the Teacher should use the “associativity” and appropriate meta data to make students think beyond the silos, be creative and learn to question or inquire. This style is perhaps most desirable to explain the complex subject of environment and its management. Remember that examining meta data also helps to check the “quality” of the data and validate some of the hypothesis. We need to build a number of interesting teaching case studies for this purpose.  Professor lighted his cigar

“Oh Professor, since you mentioned about validating the hypothesis, I must share with you something funny” I said while sipping the filter coffee.  Generally, higher is the number of environmental professionals available in a country, the national Environmental Performance Index (EPI) should improve. [EPI is a measure developed by the Yale University. EPI for each country is estimated every year and the index has been published for more than 15 years].

And so, what was your finding for India data Dr Modak? Professor asked.

“Well, I found that as the number of environmental professionals increased, the levels of EPI for India  deteriorated! Quite contrary to the hypothesis”

“Aha, you did not use the right meta data Dr Modak. Professor exclaimed. “If you had used meta data on corruption and scams in India, then you would have certainly found a relationship between corruption in the country and the deteriorating EPI”

I thought Professor was absolutely right.


Cover image sourced from https://tech.ebu.ch/groups/pmag


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Pollution and Psychology

Have you come across the field of environmental psychology?

When Professor asked me this question, I was a bit unsure to answer. I knew that interest in environmental psychology exists and several books and research papers have already been written. There are also university based academic programs that let you earn a degree in this subject.

In India however, I had not come across a discussion on this important subject and had not seen professionals engaged in this arena.

Environmental psychology is a field of psychology that deals with the study of effects of environment or surroundings on humans. The study focuses on the human reactions to environments, to gain insight on how change in environment can manipulate people’s feelings, thoughts and possibly actions. The field defines the term environment broadly, encompassing natural environments, social settings as well as built environments. Environmental psychology is an interdisciplinary field.

Every day we are affected in some way by the environments we live, work and recreate. For example, some surroundings may make us feel secure while other may make us feel nervous. Our exposure to the digital data, infographics, videos on the subject of environmental pollution influences our psychology and hence our reactions.

The frequently published Air Quality Indices (AQI) across Indian cities scare many. But compared to the talk on air pollution, we discuss little about the noise pollution. Today, India operates 500 automated noise monitoring stations that record noise on 24×7 basis. This continuous noise data is not shared with the public. So, we are perhaps less sensitive about the status and impact of noise pollution. Due to our festivities and an affinity to make noise, an average Indian seems to be indifferent to the decibels of noise exposed.

On our perception of solid waste, campaigns under Swatch Bharat Abhiyan have made a difference. Increasing fines for not segregating the waste at source and discouraging littering has made us at least conscious about the mounting problem of the waste we generate. We have started hating plastic and are now thinking about the challenge of electronic waste and its disposal. But the issues are not limited to pollution.

I remember Prof Ikeda, one of my Japanese friends, specializing in urban behavior, came to “experience”  crowding in Mumbai. We stood outside the Victoria Terminus Station at 9 am to see the crowd pouring out. Ikeda was comparing this crowd with Tokyo. He was impressed. When we interviewed a few people, we realized that people travelling in the crowded trains were under significant stress. The fist-fight to get inside the compartment, building tenacity to stand and breath till you reach the destination and then applying all the skills and energy to get out at the desired destination was a nightmare to many. Under these situations, when people reached office, their behavior was loaded with anger and frustration  –  but can we blame them?

I must recommend you a book on “Emotive Cartography” edited by Christian Nold.  This book is a collection of essays from artists, psychogeographers, designers, cultural researchers, futurologists and neuroscientists, brought together to explore the political, social and cultural implications of visualizing people’s intimate biometric data and emotions using technology. Case studies are given of different cities of the world showing the map of emotions. The maps are fascinating. Think about the emotion maps of mega cities like Mumbai, Delhi and compare them with medium size cities like Bhopal, Nagpur. Sure they will be different.

But the purpose of an environmental psychologist is not just make people aware of the problem, or understand their emotions towards the environment, but find how to alter a person’s perception, bring in a behavioral change and find ways how a more pleasant environment can be created for everyone. So, we do need trained environmental psychologists.

“But do you think an environmental psychologist will get a job in India?” I asked Professor. Even the techies in environmental science and engineering are not getting employment today and if they get one, they are poorly paid.

Professor lit his cigar

“Well Dr Modak, I agree but I expect that in the course of few years, environmental psychology will be a rather coveted career”

He seemed confident.

He took a deep puff and explained

We need to “expose” the people to the “information” surrounding us so that they understand the invisible or out of sight. For example, we cannot feel radiation arising from the mobile phones and transmission towers but realize the gravity of the issue only when it is too late. We can see smog, especially from a distance, or while the aircraft lands in the city; but  we cannot see the particulate matter. Other problems, such as scraps of plastic floating in the oceans or inside the animals that ingested are visible in principle, but they are “outside” our “normal” view. Visiting a beach that is littered with plastic will make us get disgusted and hence take on action.  Many suggest the public could potentially become motivated if powerful images were carried on everyday products, similar to that already being used on cigarette packaging. But does a chain smoker of cigarettes give up smoking because of these horrific images and warnings? An environmental psychologist will tell.

Second challenge is cognition. We need to explain the causes to impairment to health – one of them being environmental pollution. People may find it difficult to connect pollution with health-related outcomes such as illness especially when pollution is an omnipresent feature of the background. We need well conducted surveys and analyses of data to establish potential cause-effect relationship. Still the cognition could be difficult and debatable. Environmental benefit of unleaded petrol or phasing out to CNG is not easy to understand. We understand the economics more easily. So, an environmental psychologist will tell us how to overcome this challenge.

Finally, we need to help people discover that role can be played as an individual. Some people may understand the perceptual, cognitive, and interventional issues, but simply don’t care. Here it is necessary to link pollution to core values. People often revolt against pollution when the issue is moralized. Moralization, in turn, enables the generation and enforcement of norms, laws, and punishments, as well as rewards. An environmental psychologist will need to take us back to our core values, reminding us of the traditions, beliefs and culture to become more sensitive and responsible towards environment.

The field of environmental psychology is thus committed to the development of a discipline that is both value oriented and problem oriented using the science of human nature.

I was more than convinced with Professors explanation.

Since India now boasts of 14 most air polluted cities out of the top 15 across the world, I asked Professor about what role the subject of environmental psychology can play.

“Oh, Dr Modak, Haven’t you come across the new research that links air pollution to higher levels of crime and other unethical acts? This research was just published in 2018″ Professor said while extinguishing his cigar.

Evidence of a link between pollution and crime has been growing for several years. Findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science indicates that exposure to air pollution, either physically or mentally, is linked with unethical behaviour such as crime and cheating. The experimental findings suggest that this association may be due, at least in part, to increased anxiety. This association was held even after the researchers accounted for other potential factors.

To establish a direct, causal link between the experience of air pollution and unethical behaviour, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in China, United States and India. The results showed that participants who thought about living in a polluted area cheated more often than did those who thought about living in a clean area. The authors conclude that air pollution not only corrupts people’s health, but also can contaminate their morality.

I was simply aghast with this finding.

Clearly, controlling air pollution in Indian cities should be our first priority – at least on this ground!


Cover image sourced from https://blogs.haverford.edu/haverblog/2016/04/11/cool-classes-environmental-psychology-and-conservation/


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