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Reconstructing India with construction waste

Waste Management

Masood Mallick, Joint Managing Director, REEL

India is building and rebuilding itself at a frenetic pace. Thousands of tonnes of Construction & Demolition (C&D) waste end up dumped on the skirts of urban centers, which are hungry for sand, bricks, tiles and other materials to build a new India. With the recent launch of yet another C&D Waste Recycling Facility, Ramky Enviro Engineers Limited (REEL) is steadily building capacity to convert such waste into useful, sustainable construction materials that have properties similar to virgin material, and are less expensive to boot.

Masood Mallick, Joint Managing Director, REEL explains the enormity of the waste burden and how his company is using business development as a force to recycle it.

What is the scope and scale of India’s C&D waste problem and what is Ramky’s approach towards it?

Most such waste in India is still not processed scientifically. While this is our sixth C&D Waste Recycling facility in India, the fact is that we are not even scratching the surface of the problem.

India generates 100-150 million tonnes of C&D waste per annum. Currently, less than 1% is recycled. Contrast this with the fact that 70% of India is yet to be built. A huge amount of construction is in our future. From the C&D waste point of view, we are already at an unsustainable level by a huge margin.

As we at Ramky have appreciated the scope of this challenge, our response to it has grown as well. We have a long track record, a rapid growth rate and the scale to respond; not by doing more of what we were doing, but by transforming ourselves from a waste management company to a resource management company.

This is not wordplay; there is a significant shift in how we perceive materials. We are now concerned with the resource recovery and circular economy angle in municipal, industrial or specialised waste streams like electronic waste; this drives our business strategy. This space needs more investment, more recycling centers and a level of scale that will make recycling mainstream.

As long as recycling remains just a garage innovation project or NGO-driven activity, sustainability challenges will not be addressed. We have to respond at scale to have city-wide or nation-wide impact.

Waste Management

How are you making the material recovery process and the use of its products mainstream?

We have invested a lot in technology development and indigenisation of technology to maximise the recycling rate. With every new facility, our recycling rates are only going up. Depending upon the type of debris we are receiving, we have achieved a 96-99% recovery rate for the thousands of tonnes we process, segregate and refine on a daily basis. This is then treated to become a substitute for materials that have a significant environmental impact.

For example, we substitute sand that is mined illegally with manufactured sand. It meets the quality required for construction sand, and is 100% recycled. We substitute stone quarries, which are like scars on the earth, with aggregate for cement companies. We have partnered with large cement companies to bring out a new line of eco-concrete. This is ready-mix concrete that has high recycled content.

The colour, finish and strength of tiles manufactured by us are comparable with a tile made from virgin material. ‘Recycled’ does not mean ‘lower quality alternative’; we also offer such products at a cost lower than non-recycled products.

What is the role of C&D waste generators and government bodies in this ecosystem?

As of now, C&D waste is a municipality’s headache. Why? Because its generators dump it anywhere; it either stays there and becomes a mountain of debris, or is picked up by the municipality and transported to recyclers like us. Either way, the challenge is capturing waste at source. Eventually, through enforcement, the generator of such waste needs to be made responsible for its recycling and reuse.

Some cities have started doing this. At the time of granting a building permit itself, they ask for an estimate of the amount of the C&D waste expected to be generated; its management is then integrated into the building permit.

Why are nano-additives used in manufacturing products from C&D waste?

When recycled aggregates are mixed with sand and cement, you make concrete, which is the most dominant building material. Today, our aggregates are used for low-strength purposes e.g. non-structural concrete. It is used for casting a floor that is supported by the ground, but if a load-bearing column is being cast, recycled aggregate is not being used. Why? Because there is a perception that it is inferior.

We have been doing R&D to make this product better for high-strength applications. This needs to be done without adding too much bulk, which would make it unsuitable for mixing purposes. Whatever we add should be in very small quantities, but should have a substantial impact on strength, setting time, compression properties etc.

We want to manufacture tiles, bricks, blocks, precast walls etc., made of 100% recycled material, that has better quality and lower cost than virgin products. For this, we need high-tech additives that dispense much better than conventional additives and make a big impact on product properties.

Where do you foresee demand for these recycled products?

Since our material costs slightly less than virgin material, we have almost 100% capacity being sold through guaranteed offtake by repeat buyers like cement companies (two of the largest are buying as fast as we can produce), or even local builders.

A small group of local builders close to one of our earlier cities said, “You are selling your material to big cement companies when we are right next to you. We have the first right; give this material to us!” Such a heartening thing to hear.

Several states have issued circulars to construction companies, mandating them to buy recycled construction material, but it may or may not be enforced. But we cannot wait for that to happen; we are using market dynamics to make it mainstream. Uptake was once a problem, but across our facilities, we are now zeroing out inventory on a daily basis.

What is your vision for this stream of waste management?

Given the scale of the issue, we are in the market development phase right now; we are consciously not trying to make money. To create impact in the long-term, we have to operate near to cost. We are okay with that because we want big builders and government buyers to come. One of our biggest customers today is a Smart City.

Today, all power project distribution companies compulsorily have to buy renewable power. That is the only kind of support we need; policies should be put in place so that such recycled products become ‘must-buys’, if offtake doesn’t happen, this material cannot be stored. The plant will then shut down and debris will start accumulating again, and the vicious cycle will restart.

What innovations are you bringing in?

We have indigenised some equipment, but a lot is still imported. Our facilities are fully enclosed and designed to be completely dust-free and noise-free. Other than to supervise the loading, no manpower is needed; everything is automated. If there is any problem, the equipment shuts down in safe mode and sends out a telemetry alert.

We have facilities that can process 500 tonnes of debris on a single shift basis, but we are also working on hub-and-spoke models with small primary processing facilities, where material is processed up to a particular level. From there, a part of it is returned to the market, and the remaining difficult-to-recycle material goes to a larger mother plant, which has more advanced equipment. Eventually, there will be a hybrid model where big cities have such large facilities operating in their periphery so that their urban regeneration is sustainable. Smaller cities may need only one facility.

We have also created a mobile C&D waste recycling unit. Large projects, which generate large amounts of waste, can have the plant on-site. We will help them demolish safely and sustainably to maximize resource recovery and recycle the waste at the location so that it can be used in the new redevelopment project.

We have six sites operational. We will develop another 26 C&D waste management facilities across the country and therefore have a total of 32 facilities pan-India. We have a long way to go and will not rest until you have our tiles and our walls in your home.

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