The magic wand to convert the world's most daunting environmental problem of plastic waste into its most precious commodity, fossil fuels including diesel and petrol, is being wielded by a low profile woman scientist in India's western state of Maharashtra.
Alka Zadgaonkar, who lives and works as an applied chemistry professor in the central Indian town of Nagpur, began to work her magic almost two years ago.
A zero-pollution industrial process to convert non-biodegradable - and mostly non-recyclable - plastic waste into liquid hydrocarbons is quietly underway in the Butibori industrial estate, 25 km from Alka's home in Nagpur, the absolute central point of the country.
The Zadgaonkars' Unique Waste Plastic Management & Research Company plant devours a whole range of plastic waste -- from discarded carry bags to mineral water bottles and broken buckets to PVC pipes, polyethylene eriophthalate (PET) bottles, even ABS (acrylonitrile butadine sterine) plastic material used in the making of computer monitors and TV sets, keyboards et al -- and converts it 100 percent into liquid hydrocarbon fuels (85 percent) and gases (15 percent).
The Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) has recommended use of the Zadgaonkar liquid fuels in running agriculture pumps and boilers, as marine fuel and input feed for petro refineries, and the gaseous fuels as an in-house and industrial substitute for LPG.
The world's first and so far the only continuous process industrial plant in Butibori has caught the eye of the scientific community and begun to beckon entrepreneurs to approach its close-fisted promoter with buy-up or tie-up offers.
While this happens, the inventor continues to go about her modest Indian urban middle-class routine of cooking food for her family every morning and evening and teaching at the Raisoni Engineering College during the day.
"Invention of the process was the greatest reward of my life; why should I change my lifestyle?" asks Professor Alka Zadgaonkar, who is in her 40s, while serving her in-laws a meal.
Husband Umesh offers the next bit of information - Alka is now concentrating on a method of producing solid fuel (similar to coal) from biodegradable solid waste in 24 hours flat. But the world might have to wait a while for the next revolution to happen.
What's in the immediate offing at the plant is the upscaling of its production capacity from 10,000 to 25,000 liters of liquid hydrocarbons per day and addition of a unit to convert the 15 percent gaseous output into electricity.
Though the small scale industrial unit has an installed capacity to consume only 25 metric tonnes (MT) of plastic waste - present consumption is 10 MT a day - that would still leave more than 50 MT of the non-biodegradable hazard to the Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) to dispose of.
Clearly, the proven industrial process if replicated on a macro scale holds great promise for the country and the world at large.
India's Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimates municipal solid waste (MSW) generation in the country to increase from the present 130,000 MT per day to a whopping 821,000 MT by 2047. The estimated requirement of land for its disposal would be 169.9 sq km by then, as against 20.2 sq km in 1997.
The proportion of non-biodegradable plastic waste in the MSW, which increased from 0.69 percent in 1971-73 to 7 percent in 2003, is growing exponentially.
The scenario in the most industrially developed countries is even more frightening. In Los Angeles, 90 percent of the underground space allocated for landfills has already been occupied. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency, UK, has found as much as 65 percent increase in the generation of waste plastic litter globally from 1997 to 2005.
Given the limits of plastic recycling (output degrades after each cycle) coupled with the fact that incineration is highly expensive and can be hazardous, emitting toxic gases if not done properly, and in view of the future energy crunch, Alka decided to try for herself what several polymer scientists in the world are already experimenting with - conversion of plastic to hydrocarbon fuels.
Setting up an apparatus consisting of a cylindrical stainless steel vessel, a condensing system, a receiving flask and an outlet vent apart from a pressure gauge and a timer, Alka started experimenting with the idea way back in 1995 and saw the first signs of success only after four years of nerve-wracking perseverance.
The method comprised regulated anaerobic heating of a mixture of plastic waste (90 percent) and coal (10 percent) in the presence of a catalyst.
With word spreading across an incredulous scientific community, Alka began to receive invitations to attend seminars and give presentations. India's scientist President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, hearing about the encomiums showered on the inventor at a national seminar invited her to a conference in 2003.
He then pushed the Department of Science of Technology (DST) and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to verify Alka's claims. Top scientists of the IOC's R&D wing had her conversion process test-demonstrated repeatedly under different conditions before handing down a favorable certification.
But what had already clinched the issue in favor of the Indian scientist was a positive search report and subsequent publication of her patent application by the Geneva based World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The prestigious John Willey Publications, UK, devoted one whole chapter to her invention in their latest World Polymer Series, which is considered as the highest mark of authenticity.
The only scientist from India to attend the Global Plastic Environmental Conference (GPEC) - 2004 at Detroit, US, on a special invitation, Alka has been approached by the Japanese oil giant Izemitsu, the US Applied Science Inc. and Germany's Marlos Thormann Energy Solutions with tie-up offers.
However, Alka and her husband are keen to keep commercial interests within India and retain control over the industrial application of her invention.
Back home, industrial giant Reliance Industries has shown interest and sent two senior officers to Butibori.
Discussions for a large scale plant with global engineering consultants Mott- Macdonald and Dalal Engineering Consultants are on as well.
Zadgaonkar's Unique Waste Plastic Management & Research Company is running on a liberal loan from the state-run State Bank of India.
"We receive an uninterrupted supply of raw material and sell the fuel in bulk to an agent who supplies it to small industrial units in the region," says Umesh Zadgaonkar.
Citing statistics of crude oil consumption of 115 million MT per annum in India, 80 percent of which has to be imported at the rate of $60 per barrel and pointing out that one litre of crude oil yields only 600 ml of hydrocarbon fuel, Umesh says plastic waste converted into liquid hydrocarbons in his plant without emitting any pollutants would be a cheaper partial substitute. It would also take care of hazardous plastic waste.
Coupled with the bio-diesel revolution, the plastic-waste-to-fuel process can prove to be a double-boon for humanity.
This is an idea whose time has come.