Despite being a highenergy, plastic product, thermocol waste is hardly ever collected and recycled in India. The Therminator is a machine that converts thermocol into a form which can be easily transported, thus promoting its collection and recycling.
After Bangalore-based Ferdin Sylvester earned his Masters degree in Environmental Engineering from Singapore, he returned to India and began working as a freelance consultant. He had seen the best that the West had to offer when it came to waste management, but he knew that what worked elsewhere in the world would not necessarily work in India. Over time, he examined the many problems faced by the Indian waste management community, and zeroed in on one that he wanted to help solve: thermocol recycling.
Can thermocol be recycled?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. Thermocol, technically known as Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), is a high-volume low-weight substance, used in packaging material and in construction as a rigid foam with high thermal insulation capacity and high impact resistance. Most importantly, it is a form of plastic, is 100% recyclable, and can be reprocessed into other plastic products.
Is thermocol recycled in India?
Unfortunately, no. In the form in which it is used, thermocol consists of 95% air. Ragpickers – who form the first line of waste segregators – sell their collected waste to vendors by weight, not volume. It does not make economic sense for them to bother collecting a bulky, but lightweight substance. Similarly, storing or transporting thermocol to a different location for processing in its existing form takes up a lot of space
Sylvester says, “In India, the waste sector is very unregulated. Things work only when they are financially viable. When waste doesn’t have economic value, it becomes a problem. Thermocol is one such problem.”
The bottom line, it isn’t profitable to transport air.
What happens to thermocol waste in India?
Lack of financial incentive to collect thermocol leads to a breakdown of the waste management and recycling chain. Consequently, thermocol – which has value – is disposed off in one of the two unprofitable ways.
If the transportation facility is available, it is dumped in landfills. Thermocol is non-biodegradable and resists degeneration. It can remain intact in soil for upto a million years.
More commonly, it is simply burnt at the source. Since it is a petroleum product, it has a high energy content and combusts easily. However, uncontrolled burning of EPS causes release of compounds like benzenes, styrene, carbon black and carbon monoxide, which have a high air pollution index. These can cause health problems like eye irritation, headache, fatigue and muscle weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, bronchitis, scarring, chronic cough or reduction in lung function, as well as long-term effects on the kidneys and blood.
The third way of ‘disposing’ thermocol is to simply dump it in open sewers and drains, where it ends up choking the drainage system. In October 2017, Bengaluru experienced sudden floods; the municipal authorities found thermocol-clogged drains responsible.
What is the solution?
The problem with thermocol is its inherent physical characteristic: it is very bulky and very light. What’s needed is something that can convert this bulky volume into something compact and dense, which can then be easily transported to a recycling center.
Enter the Therminator. Developed by Syvester, this low-cost, low maintenance, low-power consuming machine removes air from thermocol waste, and transforms it into a high-weight, low-volume product. By reducing the volume of one unit of EPS, it allows for more units to be stored and transported. This makes it possible to transport larger quantities of EPS to the recyclers, thus making the value chain profitable for everyone.
It uses a stable, customisable system of heat and pressure to convert thermocol to high-weight plastic that can be economically viable for further processing. This is done in two stages:
First, the EPS waste is heated in a controlled-environment chamber to something called the glass transition temperature, which is lower than its melting point. At this temperature, thermocol does not melt, but behaves like wax, and can be deformed and moulded with pressure. The heat system is controlled to provide uniform heat at low temperatures to convert the EPS into a semi solid state.
This activates the pressure system, which squeezes the air out and actively compresses this semi-solid EPS into a dense substance, which can then be transported for recycling.
What makes it unique?
By ensuring that the operating temperature is much lower than the melting point of EPS, it prevents the escape of noxious gases into the environment. As an added layer of safety, the Therminator includes HEPA and carbon filters to trap gases and purify the effluent fluids.
Thermocol exhibits high resistance, and needs tremendous pressure to compress it. The Therminator is unique in that its only moving part is this compression plate, which reduces wear and tear, hence reducing maintenance costs.
The machine has a low power requirement, and is portable with wheels that allow for plug-and-use.
Most importantly, it reduces the volume of EPS waste by upto 80%. Sylvester gives an example: “A typical double-door fridge is packaged in 1.5- 2 kg of thermocol; after densification in the Therminator, this waste is reduced to the size of 1-2 toasters”.
Through his company Ecobel, Sylvester is manufacturing units with the capacity to process 1 kg/hr and 3 kg/hr of EPS waste. The cycle time takes 10-20 minutes.
Production started six months ago, and units are already in operation at a Public Sector Unit which imports many thermocol-packaged items, and a municipal corporation. Sylvester says that potential clients include large companies like Infosys and WIpro, which generate a lot of EPS packaging waste, and municipalities, which can place the Therminator at community waste collection centers, where it can be processed before being upscaled.
He gives us a peek into the future: “I’m working on a version in which EPS can be melted and directly moulded into products like buckets, mugs and pens. Right now, rag-pickers collect and give EPS to vendors, but what if the collection center itself can manufacture the final plastic product? It will directly benefit those who collect the waste in the first place.”
By simply changing the density of thermocol, Sylvester has made a previously uncollected waste product profitable, and incentivised its collection and recycling. Solutions like these – which solve India specific problems – are what will change the landscape of waste management in India.