She found a way to make plastic waste useful

Medha Tadpatrikar helped design a machine in Pune, India, that heats up plastic to convert it to fuel. The process is eco-friendly in more ways than one.

Chandana Banerjee
Medha Tadpatrikar helped invent this machine that heats up plastic to convert it to fuel – without emitting toxic gases.

In 60 cities in India, 16,876 tons of plastic waste are generated each day, according to data from the country’s Central Pollution Control Board. Multiply that by 365, and you have more than 6 million tons of plastic that end up in landfills a year.

Such figures were keeping Medha Tadpatrikar awake at night. She was also deeply troubled by an incident she had witnessed on a safari in India – a deer choking on a plastic packet that it had swallowed. “I realized how big this plastic problem is and how every creature on this earth is affected by it,” she says of the incident.

So Dr. Tadpatrikar resolved to find a way to make plastic waste useful. She and Shirish Phadtare started experimenting in Tadpatrikar’s kitchen, trying to “cook” plastic in a pressure cooker to create a practical fuel. “Plastic is made of crude oil, and we wanted to reverse the process to get usable oil,” Tadpatrikar explains.

After lots of kitchen R&D, some trial and error, and help from engineer friends, this experimenting duo has come up with an operation in the Pune, India, area that benefits the environment in several ways. They are indeed producing fuel, using a process that doesn’t emit toxic gases. And by pressing plastic waste into service, they’re reducing the amount of plastic headed toward landfills. Moreover, the oil itself is eco-friendly – a better choice than some of the other fuels that villagers living near Pune use. And when these villagers opt for the plastic-derived fuel, it means they aren’t depleting precious resources that are needed for other fuels.

“Much cheaper than any other fuel in the market, this one is used in cooking stoves, in generators, and even to run tractors,” explains Tadpatrikar, adding that it doesn’t contain sulfur.

Tadpatrikar and Mr. Phadtare’s journey began in 2009 when they brought out pots, pans, and pressure cookers to heat up plastic bags. “We blew up quite a few cookers in the process,” says Tadpatrikar, smiling. Later that year, they cofounded Rudra Environmental Solution.

The first machine they developed could recycle 110 pounds of plastic into polyfuel, but it was also producing a toxic combination of methane, butane, and propane. “There was no point creating an eco-friendly product that was adding to air pollution,” says Tadpatrikar, who has studied and worked in London and has a doctorate in marketing research.

So she shelved that machine. And to build up funds for cutting-edge research, she and Phadtare took on more work through Mantraa – a marketing firm that the duo founded in 2005. They even mortgaged their office to raise the equivalent of $75,000, every penny of which was funneled into their development efforts.

The goal was to design a machine that could use the gases it was emitting to fire itself up. And that they did in Pune.

“Our two new machines, one that we launched in 2013 and the other in 2015, use up every bit of the byproducts, including the gases,” says Tadpatrikar, noting that even the leftover sludge can be mixed with bitumen to create roads.

One of the machines that Rudra now operates tackles 220 pounds of plastic at a time, while the other can work with substantially more – 2,645 pounds. The plastic waste is heated to about 300 degrees F., at which point gas is released. The gas is then cleaned and used as an energy source to keep the machines working. At 570 to 660 degrees, fuel is created in the form of condensation.

“These machines can generate 45 to 65 liters [12 to 17 gallons] of polyfuel from 100 kilograms [220 pounds] of plastic through a process known as gasolysis,” Tadpatrikar elaborates.

An engineer’s assessment

Anil Deshpande, who runs an engineering firm that creates environmentally friendly machines for companies across India, was part of the team that helped Rudra improve upon its original design. “Dr. Tadpatrikar is doing extraordinary work for this city and for the environment,” he says.

The fuel churned out by the two machines is carefully collected in bottles, and it’s sold to people in 122 villages around Pune at a subsidized rate of 38 rupees (53 cents) per liter. It’s a boon for villagers like Nanda Shinde, who can’t afford to buy any other fuel.

“Ever since I started using this polyfuel, my life has become so much easier,” says Ms. Shinde, a poor farmer from Jejuri, a quiet village on the outskirts of Pune. “Earlier, I’d spend hours chopping down trees for firewood for my stove. And in the monsoons, when the wood is soggy, I’d have to burn plastic bags to cook a meal on,” explains Shinde, who toils in the fields, attends to household chores, and looks after her family of six from the first light of dawn until the last of the evening.

“Now I give my waste plastic to Rudra, and I am doing this so my children will have a cleaner world to live in,” adds Shinde, who has taken part in awareness sessions organized by the group and encourages her fellow villagers to also separate plastic from other waste.

Rudra has an extensive operation to round up plastic waste. It gathers items from 10,000 households across Pune, and Tadpatrikar recently bought two small vehicles to help with the collection.

“I’m willing to travel anywhere across the city to pick up plastic that we can rescue from its landfill destiny,” Tadpatrikar says.

From used ballpoint-pen refills and plastic packaging to broken toys and old plastic objects, Tadpatrikar and Phadtare gather every bit of plastic waste to convert it into fuel. “We ask people to wash out the milk packets or containers used to store fresh food before they send it off to us. But everything else can be sent just as it is,” Tadpatrikar notes.

Mr. Deshpande, the engineer, sends his household plastic to Rudra, too. “Dr. Tadpatrikar also takes a lot of effort in spreading the word about plastic segregation,” he says.

With Mantraa, the marketing firm, contributing a big chunk of funds for the day-to-day running of Rudra, Tadpatrikar and Phadtare have hired seven people to help, from hauling the bulging sacks of plastic to running the machines that create the fuel. Tadpatrikar also has a team of 50 volunteers, most of them women, who arrange collection drives in their neighborhoods and help run the awareness sessions.

Limits to the operation

Still, for now at least, Rudra’s efforts have their limits.

“Pune unloads about 100 metric tons [110 tons] of nondegradable plastic waste into landfills, lakes, and rivers every day,” Tadpatrikar says. “Since we started collecting and converting plastic into sustainable fuel from early 2014, we’ve ... saved [about] 150 metric tons from choking up the earth.” Thus in total, Rudra has saved only the amount of plastic that’s dumped in a day and a half.

It’s a fact that keeps Tadpatrikar on her toes, encouraging her to continue figuring out how to make a dent in the humongous figures.

To start, Rudra intends to expand where it collects plastic. “By the end of 2017, we hope to collect plastic from 25,000 households,” Tadpatrikar says. There are also plans to set up more machines across the city – and to sell the machines to others.  

“We’ve just completed making five such machines that other industries can install to manage their plastic waste,” she says. The money that Rudra earns from the sale of machines, or the sale of fuel, is plowed back into the venture, including its research efforts.

Tadpatrikar and Phadtare are exploring other directions, too. One project on the anvil is a machine to turn old plastic into smooth sheets, which women villagers like Shinde can use to create handbags and accessories. “This will be a self-help initiative,” says Tadpatrikar, “where women in villages can generate employment for themselves and put food on the table.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups that support the conservation of natural resources:

Highland Support Project works with community leaders to address environmental, social, and economic challenges. Take action: Donate money for a fuel-efficient stove project.

Osa Conservation applies scientific and other expertise to protecting the biodiversity of the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica. Take action: Help fund this organization’s environmental education program.

EcoLogic Development Fund works with rural and indigenous peoples to protect tropical ecosystems in Central America and Mexico. Take action: Support conservation in Honduras’s Pico Bonito National Park.

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