Aligning recycling and manufacturing in the COVID era

By Professor Veena Sahajwalla, UNSW SMaRT Centre
Thursday, 17 September, 2020

Aligning recycling and manufacturing in the COVID era

The UNSW SMaRT (Sustainable Materials Research and Technology) Centre is helping to align recycling and manufacturing in the new COVID-19 era to address the challenges around delivering more sustainable product outcomes.

As organisations and businesses started to experience difficulty in obtaining materials and products for their operations, the notion of ‘sovereign capability’ — where a nation relies more on its own resources and materials — has provided a boost to the sustainability discussion.

Across Australia, what we really need is an alignment of recycling and manufacturing and to start seeing waste as a valuable (and renewable) resource for much of the materials we use in society.

Adopting and operationalising circular economies — where materials are kept in use for as long as possible to create greater sustainability — will really only occur through such an alignment.

One recent example is the SMaRT Centre’s prototyping of frames for face shields for use in medical settings, using filament made from 100% waste plastic using our Microfactorie technology.

A key lesson was how valuable filament — which is mostly only available from overseas suppliers — could become a material resource for the manufacture of parts and products, and ultimately provide an uplift in manufacturing capability in times of stressed supply chains.

The SMaRT Centre, through its microrecycling science and Microfactorie technologies, can transform waste plastics into feedstock resource for manufacturers and other 3D printing users. This model of decentralised manufacturing provides distributed benefits.

Being able to create local supply chains from waste plastic would help develop opportunities for parts and products not readily available, especially when global supply chains are disrupted.

With COVID-19 disrupting global supply chains and sparking questions about sovereign manufacturing capability, now is the time to adopt new technologies and practices that can help us better manage our materials as resources, to reduce waste and create new supply chains and jobs.

This alignment of recycling and manufacturing is a key focus of the SMaRT Centre at UNSW Sydney, and we recently published two separate scientific papers that explain the science and technology behind how we are trying to forge this alignment.

The SMaRT Centre created the phrase ‘microrecycling science’ to describe its novel approach to researching innovative approaches and technologies to reform various waste streams into value-added materials and products, through decentralised manufacturing to help local, regional and rural locations.

Ever-increasing population, technological advancement, variable consumption trends and lack of efficiency in using materials are forcing us near a crisis point in terms of waste management.

Australia’s governments have agreed to ban the exporting of glass, plastic, paper and rubber tyres from January 2021, so we need to start treating these waste items as the ‘renewable resources’ they really are and feed them back into manufacturing and divert them from landfill, stockpiling and incinerators.

A key challenge is that existing, centralised recycling and waste treatment methods at scale often just turn things like PET bottles back into PET bottles. What we need is a recycling and manufacturing system that can innovate to reform waste for more diverse and value-added end uses.

Recyclers traditionally haven’t seen themselves as manufacturers and manufacturers haven’t seen themselves as recyclers, but we need them to.

So, if we accept that we need plastic, for instance, and want to keep it out of landfill and incinerators — which destroy these materials for ever — we need a system that treats it as a renewable material.

One crucial area that is now being appreciated is the SMaRT Centre’s Microfactorie technologies, which are modular based and can reform waste into value-added materials for re-use and remanufacturing.

This decentralised model brings together recycling with manufacturing capability and is designed to transform problematic waste materials, such as glass, textiles and plastics into new value-added materials and products such as green ceramics for the built environment, and filament as a feedstock resource for manufacturers and 3D printers.

The SMaRT Centre is exploring options to move the capability of producing our green ceramics from within UNSW to external operational settings with some of our industry partners — this has the potential to set new benchmarks using recycled and reformed waste materials for the built environment sector in particular.

These small-scale Microfactories are designed around creating local economies of purpose — such as being able to recycle locally sourced waste glass and textiles — which helps create a circular economy where regional market participants make up the supply chain, including the end-market participants.

Many of these innovations have progressed as a result of funding from a range of sources including the Australian Research Council (ARC).

We now have an incredible opportunity to solve numerous existential problems at once: we can collectively address waste and recycling issues and lower our carbon footprint, while also enhancing our manufacturing capability, thus creating new supply chains to enhance our sovereign capability.

COVID-19 has unearthed the weaknesses in our current way forward to meet sovereign challenges but we can start a whole new ‘green materials’ movement, where we use waste as renewable resources for manufacturing to supercharge our economies that are going into some of their biggest recessions.

This could lay the foundations for the next economic recovery or growth period. We are adding a fourth R to the three Rs of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, with Reform, by transforming waste into value-added materials. This is a key principal for our new ARC Microrecycling Hub into Battery and Consumer Wastes.

Onshore and more sophisticated processing of recycling as part of manufacturing can change the game for Australia and all countries around the world.

The goal is to completely eliminate the word waste from our vernacular because waste will become the renewable resource we know that it is.

ARC Laureate Professor Veena Sahajwalla is an internationally recognised materials scientist, engineer and inventor revolutionising recycling science. She is renowned for pioneering the high temperature transformation of waste in the production of a new generation of ‘green materials’. In 2018 Veena launched the world’s first e-waste Microfactorie and in 2019 she launched her plastics Microfactorie, a recycling technology breakthrough. As the founding Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, she is producing a new generation of green materials and products made entirely, or primarily, from waste. Veena just concluded heading as Director the ARC Industrial Transformation Research Hub for ‘green manufacturing’, a leading national research centre that works in collaboration with industry to ensure new recycling science is translated into real-world environmental and economic benefits, and is now head of a new ARC Microrecycling Hub into Battery and Consumer Wastes.

Image caption: Professor Veena Sahajwalla, UNSW SMaRT Centre. Credit: Anna Kucera

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