Dr. Shantanu Bhowmik transforms plastic waste into useful products

OAlthough plastic has many valuable uses, we have become dependent on single-use plastic products, with serious environmental, social, economic and health consequences. Worldwide, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used globally each year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single use – used once and then thrown away.

We are surrounded by plastics. Much of our furniture, clothing, electronics and food packaging are made from it. In recent decades, natural materials used in manufacturing such as paper, glass and cotton have been replaced by plastic. We know that this ubiquitous use of plastics has led to extreme plastic pollution of our environment. However, plastics are not just an environmental problem. As the toxicologist Prof. Dr. Dick Vethaak “we are also dealing with a human health problem”.

Plastics can affect our health in three ways: we eat, drink and breathe microplastics every day. These small plastic particles can harm our health once they enter our body; Plastic products contain chemical additives. A number of these chemicals have been linked to serious health problems such as hormone-related cancers, infertility, and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism; When plastics and microplastics find their way into the environment, they attract microorganisms, such as harmful bacteria (pathogens). If microplastics containing these pathogens enter our body, they can increase the risk of infection.

Microplastics are plastic particles whose size is less than or equal to 5 millimeters. Some forms of plastic are even a million times smaller than a millimeter: these are nanoplastics. Microplastics have been found everywhere in our environment, from the deepest ocean trenches at both poles, and on top of the Himalayas. Microplastics have also been found in many consumer products such as seafood, honey, beer, water, salt, fruits and vegetables. Due to the contamination of our indoor and outdoor environment with plastics, we eat, drink and breathe plastics every day. Plastics are not biodegradable and bacteria known to cause human illness tend to grow on the plastic surface.

About 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the Earth’s oceans each year, causing damage to the aquatic ecosystem and forming large patches of ocean trash. Plastics, including microplastics, are now ubiquitous in our natural environment. They are now part of the Earth’s fossil record and are a marker of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. They even gave their name to a new marine microbial habitat called the “plastisphere”.
As more and more alarm bells are ringing about the alleged health risks posed by plastic, new scientific research is needed more than ever. Plastic recycling is necessary because almost all plastic is not biodegradable and therefore accumulates in the environment, causing immense damage. Since the beginning of plastic production in the 20th century, until 2015, the world produced some 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste and the global plastic recycling rate was only 9%, while 12 % were incinerated and the remaining 79% disposed of in landfill or the environment, including the sea.

Scientists and environmentalists are working on different ways to reprocess plastic waste into new products. When done correctly, it can reduce reliance on landfill, conserve resources, and protect the environment from plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Recently, the town of Jhargram in the district of West Midnapore started something of a revolution when Sanjeeb Mitra, director of the Jhargram Art Academy, decided to renovate the floors of the academy with colorful tiles recycled from plastics for single use. He was introduced to this unique tile by a brilliant son of the soil and renowned scientist, Dr. Shantanu Bhowmik, a highly respected name in the global scientific community. What better way than to begin this journey of transformation from the city where he was born and spent his youthful years.

Dr. Shantanu Bhowmik, Head of Research Program and Professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, Coimbatore, is well known for his contribution to the development of lightweight bulletproof composite. It has also made pioneering efforts in recycling thermocol which contributes around 7600 tons of waste every day. Under his leadership, Akash Vineet, Akash Jayakumar and Abhihas Balaji, all students of the Aerospace Engineering Department of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, developed technology to convert single-use plastics into products like floor tiles, roof tiles , etc.

For years, Dr. Bhowmik has witnessed plastic waste strewn everywhere. It touched him deeply to see the volume of plastic waste being generated on campus. The enormity of the problem stuck with him and the problem resonated with his students, who started the project in July 2018. He also gave them the recycling solution to get started. Within eight months, the trio had seen good results. But they still had a long way to go. They knew how to recycle, but didn’t know how to use the recycled materials.

After being part of Amrita TBI (Technology Business Incubator), the team secured a grant of Rs 10 lakh in February. In March 2019, before graduation, they incorporated a company. Their company, R Cube Plastics, began producing pavement and tiles from recycled plastic in February 2020. Jayakumar is CEO and Managing Director, Vineet is COO and Director, and Balaji is Vice President of production. Dr. Bhowmik proudly serves as scientific advisor, free of charge.

The trio led by Dr. Bhowmik has been engaged since March 2019 in testing, certification and expanding research and development. In June, the team tested the compression with a block of the raw material. It was then that the idea germinated: why not make a tile? The team wanted it to look like a prototype, so they used waterjet cutting to shape it into a tile.

There were multiple challenges. The product had to be aesthetically appealing to be accepted. The production speed had to reach a certain level, and the ability to respond to larger volumes was also taken into account. High-end machinery was needed to make beautiful tiles in large volume, and the college’s equipment was inadequate. So they started outsourcing. They tested it for load, gave it to a mold designer. As of September 2019, they had a minimum viable product from the test mold.

The next phase was to test the market. The team traveled to four trade shows, in Coimbatore, Chennai and Mumbai, where they were able to showcase the products to real estate players and architects, among others. People could step on the tiles to demonstrate their strength. Lots of feedback from potential customers has been recorded, across factors such as design and load.

At Plastivision, R-Cube was one of the 10 Indian start-ups chosen to present their products. In the long term, R-Cube aims to create a circular economy, end to end. This means creating an ecosystem to source plastic for recycling. The current capacity with R-Cube is to process 10 tonnes of plastic per month, considering a 10 hour working day. According to NGOs and other sources, R-Cube estimates the supply at around 1 ton per month. The rest will have to come from the waste economy which manifests as kabadiwallahs. Awareness initiatives and creation of supply channels could be useful. The supply challenge is important in more ways than one. While an R-Cube roof tile would cost the same as a cement tile at Rs.60 per square foot, it could be cheaper if raw material costs come down.

A clay tile would cost between Rs. 30 to Rs.120, but the R-Cube tile has other inherent advantages. With lower thermal conductivity than clay or asbestos tiles, it can provide better insulation at home. Using certification from NABL Accredited Laboratories, the manufacturers claim the product will not chip or crack, will not discolor, is algae resistant, is easy to clean and maintain, and low in weight. A tile would weigh 500 grams against 1.5 kg for a clay tile. While clay and cement tiles have no value when replaced, R-Cube offers the market price of plastic.

Last year, Dr Bhowmik was in Kolkata to meet young entrepreneurs and encourage them to create wealth from recycling plastic waste. The precast pavers he developed from plastic waste are lightweight, fireproof and five times more durable than conventional concrete blocks. They are also climate-friendly building materials. He has also developed fiber boats (both manual and mechanized) and he intends to introduce it to boat builders in Balagarh. Two adult trees are cut down to make a boat and it takes half a century to grow a tree. If recycled plastic boats can replace conventional boats, they will be much more affordable, environmentally friendly and energy efficient.

In July 2020, Dr. Bhowmik participated online in the UNESCO peace mission where he spoke about ways to reduce plastic pollution and recycle plastic waste to make furniture and interior decoration materials at low prices. . His idea was applauded and he received UNESCO’s “Leadership and Excellence Award”.

Dr. Bhowmik’s parents live in the city of Jhargram. Shantanu is not only a gifted scientist but he is also an accomplished painter, singer and authority on spiritualism and philosophy. He was working abroad and doing very well, but in 2013 he quit his job and came back to India to join Amrita University when his spiritual guru ‘Mata Amritanandamayi’ summoned him.

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