The brick-clay industry employs around 10 million people in India. The industry also burns around 35–40million tonnes of coal per year, emitting carbon dioxide and sulfur, contributing to air pollution.
According to India’s Central Pollution Control Board, India produces over 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily, much of which ends up in landfills. Ultimately, 40 per cent of this waste finds its way into river and drainage systems, oceans, the soil and fragile ecosystems. Some of it is ingested by animals, causing environmental harm.
Twenty-two-year-old innovator and 2018 Young Champions of the Earth regional finalist for Asia-Pacific, Abhishek Banerjee, is setting out to change this.
“I believe there should be a complete ban on single-use plastic materials by all the countries and the manufacturing of plastic should be regulated strictly,” he said.
“However, most people tend to forget that there is still an awful lot of plastic in the oceans and spread across the land. Our options are either to work with this plastic waste or engineer new technologies for recycling it.”
During a high-school field trip to a brick kiln in West Bengal, the risks and poor working conditions of workers in the brick clay industry showed him a different side to the business.
"The biggest threat posed to kiln workers is brick-dust exposure. The daily hazards that kiln workers are exposed to include outdated kiln technology, which leads to high levels of toxic emissions, long hours on the job which can lead to overexposure to toxicants, and minimal personal protective equipment and education," said Abhishek.
According to the World Health Organization, 800 people die hourly from air pollution. Fueled by a desire to tackle air and plastic pollution in West Bengal, India, Abhishek teamed up with his construction engineering classmates at Jadavpur University, Agnimitra Sengupta, Ankan Podder and Utsav Bhattacharyya. In 2017, they founded the social enterprise Qube.
With a desire to take plastic waste out of the environment and turn it into something useful, Qube’s main product is Plastiqube, a construction brick made entirely from plastic waste. It uses discarded plastic water bottles, polythene bags, and plastic containers.
The team works with waste collectors to gather plastic debris from dustbins and junkyards in the local area, after which the plastic is cleaned, shredded and compressed into bricks.
“Plastiqube is an environmentally conscious alternative to burnt clay bricks. Our bricks are also lightweight, we sell them at a reduced cost and they provide good sound insulation,” he noted.
“The energy demand for making Plastiqube is about 70 per cent less than that of traditional bricks, so they reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. It's also less energy-intensive than recycling the plastic into other forms.”
Abhishek’s vision is to increase commercial production of Plastiqube. However, just like in any business, he faces several challenges.
“The main challenge has been the acceptance of the bricks for large-scale construction. Also, the fire resistance of the plastic bricks is low when compared to traditional burnt-clay bricks,” says Abhishek.
There has been support from businesses who are open to making a change. “We are still developing our product to enhance the thermal resistance,” Abhishek notes, adding that the Plastiqube is now supported and endorsed by Jadavpur University and the Government of India’s Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise.
“The recent push by India’s government to ban single-use plastics by 2020 demonstrates a rallying willingness to tackle plastic pollution through legislative action,” he says. “We intend to show that young people have an essential role to play in solving environmental problems, and together we can galvanize efforts through social enterprises like ours,” he adds.
"My message to young people who want to start a social enterprise is that you should work hard and have patience. You will be amazed to find that there are so many people like you—a helping hand is only a call away,” he advises.
“I believe everyone has a role to play, not only entrepreneurs and government policymakers. There are small ways in which together we can create a big impact and a more sustainable future. It takes bringing our own bags to the grocery store, silverware to the office and a reusable water bottle, before these changes become a healthier habit to protect our world.”
Tessa Goverse, Chemicals, Waste and Air Quality Programme Coordinator at UN Environment, says: “Plastiqube shows the tremendous power young people have to work towards a pollution-free planet. We need to provide space for such creativity and innovative thinking, and promote inclusive partnerships that can lead to the development of sustainable solutions—taking into account the full life cycle of new products and their alternatives in terms of social and environmental impacts.”
She further adds that while encouraging such innovative ideas, measures need to be taken to ensure that air pollution, resource use and plastic pollution are reduced — and managed in ways that avoid ending up with a new source of widespread pollution at later stages in the process.
The Young Champions of the Earth Prize is powered by Covestro. The regional finalists of this year’s competition have been shortlisted here and the winners will be announced in September. Stay tuned to our news page. Applications for 2020 will open in January.