Feature
For over a year now, 45-year-old Satish has been turning 'dead' plastic, into usable fuel.
Images: Nitin B

"What do you think?" a beaming Satish Kumar asks, as he points to a large machine, that emits a soft buzz. 

For over a year now, 45-year-old Satish, a long-time resident of Hyderabad, has been involved in turning 'dead' plastic, into usable fuel.

“When plastic is made, it gets a life of four or five cycles. That's what they call recycled plastic. However, after repeating the process a few times, it gains weight and it loses its properties. Then it is called 'dead' plastic or end-of-life plastic," Satish says.

However, where many see the death of a substance, Satish sees the start of another. 

"In most cases, the industries dig a pit, dump the plastic and cover it up. This is hazardous to nature, as this plastic may take thousands of years to degrade. This is why I came up with the idea to do this," he says.

Satish's idea to convert plastic to fuel, is far from unique. However, while the process usually used is Pyrolysis (thermochemical decomposition in the absence of oxygen), Satish says he uses a process called depolymerisation. 

"Plastic is a polymer. It has to be de-polymerised," Satish says.

A polymer is any substance, whose molecular structure is built from a large number of similar units bonded together. De-polymerisation is the process of converting a polymer, in this case, plastic, into a monomer or several monomers.

As part of the process, Satish says that the dead plastic is put in a vacuum chamber along with other ingredients and heated to 350 to 400 degrees Celsius, either by induction heating, microwaving or infrared heating. 

(The reactor where plastic is depolymerised)

('Dead' plastic waiting to be processed)

"After this, gasification occurs, and an inline distillation system that I set up, separates petrol, diesel and high-speed diesel. The by-products of the reaction are petrogas and petroleum coke," he says.

This process of depolymerisation is safe, controllable and non-polluting, Satish claims. The process has also been approved by the Pollution Control Board (PCB), as a viable method.

"There is no chimney or exhaust in the factory, because the entire plastic is converted. Even the by-products of the process can be put to use," Satish points out.

(After the reactions, the products are transferred to barrels marked red(diesel), blue(high speed diesel) and black(petrol)

(Satish shows a sample of fresh high-speed diesel)

Satish says that he first began working on the idea in 2013, when he read about an 'island of trash' floating on the Pacific Ocean.

"I worked on my own de-polymerisation machine and process, because we don't have many in India. I worked on the machine for a while, starting with smaller quantities, and testing several reactions, and working out each individual part of the process," he says. 

In August 2015, he shifted his equipment to a bigger premises, and began work on designing and building a larger reactor. By January 2016, he had begun processing the plastic. 

"After I managed to make it work, I scaled up the exact same thing, and I'm able to process around 13 to 15 tonnes of plastic every month. Every batch of plastic gives us around 250 to 300 litres of diesel, 100 litres of high-speed diesel and 50 litres of petrol," he adds.

While Satish pays a few mediators to provide him with the plastic, he usually sells the fuel and by-products in bulk, to industries, or to locals.

(The final products)

Satish's company, Hydroxy Systems Pvt Ltd., is registered with the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME).

"I don't need a licence to sell it, as it my final products are considered biosynthetic fuels, under India's National Policy on Biofuels," he says.

As of now, Satish says that the machine takes 12 to 18 hours to process every batch of plastic, following which it has to be shut down for around eight hours, to cool off. 

"We process 24 batches a month, and put six days aside, for maintenance of the equipment," says Satish's wife, Sheela, who also helps him out in running the company.

Larger problem 

While the government has woken up to the problem of plastic consumption by ordinary citizens, Satish claims that industries are the actual violators.

"One industry generates more waste than hundreds of households put together. Even now, for example, when they sanction money to clean river Ganga, what they don't realise is that a fresh batch of effluents have been released by the industries. We need to tackle the source of the problem," he says.

In 2016, in a written response to a question in the Lok Sabha, then Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Anil Dave, had said that more than 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste are generated in India every day, of which, 6,000 tonnes remain uncollected and littered.

"The lack of awareness and absence of effective tools to collect the discarded plastic products including the wrapping material has led to the indiscriminate littering and disposal of plastic waste," Dave had said

Quoting government data, other reports add that only 22 to 28% of the waste that gets collected, is processed and treated.

Presently, the government has notified Plastic Waste Management Rules, under the Plastic Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2011.

While the rules do list out the responsibilities of every party involved, from the waste generator to the waste management facility, it still has a long way to go, as far as implementation is concerned.   

"When we identified and put down separate rules for bio-medical waste, that are strictly enforced, why can't we do the same for plastic? Why do we want to wait for a few more years, till the threat is staring us in the face?" Satish asks.

(Sheela and Satish)

"Our main motto to start this plant is to do something for the environment. We are not looking for commercial benefits. We wanted to give this generation and the next one, a cleaner future. We are also ready to share our technology with any new entrepreneurs who show interest," Sheela says.

"What we want from the government also, is to take some initiative and start more projects like these, to clear 'dead' plastic off the Earth," she adds.