New weapons in war on waste


By Professor Veena Sahajwalla
Monday, 09 September, 2019



New weapons in war on waste

The joint announcement by the federal and state government leaders in Australia to ban — at some point — the exporting of waste materials to other countries marks a tipping point in how we manage our waste and recycling.

The decision to keep, rather than send overseas, our waste plastic, glass and tyres, so that we reduce the amount of rubbish going into overcrowded and new landfill, presents a game-changing opportunity for our manufacturing industries.

It is essential we strive to develop a more circular economy in which we keep materials in use for as long as possible and establish new business supply chains, which ultimately create new jobs along with other economic, social and environmental benefits.

Technology is now already available right here in Australia to process much of this unwanted material into new products and manufacturing feedstock. But currently there is little commercial incentive to adopt it because much of this material is seen as having no or little value and the circular supply chains are yet to be established.

The federal government’s announcement of $20 million of funding via Round 8 of its Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) initiative to grow our domestic recycling industry is very welcome, as is emergency and ‘innovative initiatives’ funding by the states for their local councils struggling with the current waste crisis.

The CRC funding is designed to help industry partner with researchers to innovate and develop new technologies, such as that developed with my team at the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at UNSW Sydney.

Through our microrecycling science, we developed microfactory technologies that can reform waste items like glass and textiles, including clothing, into flat ceramic building products, and it can also transform electronic waste into valuable plastic filament for 3D printing and metal alloys.

We also developed what is known as ‘green steel’ technology which uses old rubber tyres as a replacement for coking coal in steelmaking, and we are working with our Australian steel partner, MolyCop, testing waste plastics as an alternative source of coal-based carbon for steelmaking.

The coordinated decision by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to ban the exporting of our recyclable materials actually presents an opportunity for Australia to lead the world in the remanufacturing of discarded materials.

For example, we can take waste plastic and turn it into new, highly valuable products such as filament for use in 3D printing which is now mostly imported from overseas, and be reformed into other commodities which can be used in steelmaking and for other applications. This microfactory technology can be deployed to rural and regional areas where waste is stockpiled and bring local industries and councils together to create new circular solutions.

SMaRT microfactory coffee table.

UNSW’s own research shows 65.4% of people believe recyclables put into council bins goes to landfill (69.5% female, 51.4% aged 18–34, 75.1% aged 65-plus). 49% of people believe green and eco-friendly efforts will not have an effect in their lifetime, compared to 63.8% of those aged 65-plus seeing no benefits being realised.

And 72.4% of people would recycle more if they thought the material was reliably recycled and a majority say they would be prepared to pay more for reliable recycling solutions.

So the community knows more could and should be done to address this issue. The COAG and CRC funding announcements are to be commended, but we also need more coordination across all stakeholders.

Also working as the new Director of the NSW Circular Economy Innovation Network, designed to bring together stakeholders across industry, researchers, governments and the community to create new circular solutions, I can see a growing willingness to adopt more sustainable outcomes.

A key challenge is to harness the commercial appetite and the current opportunity to create value from the materials that end up in landfill to ensure societies divert at scale the waste that can be reformed into new, valued-added materials, products and manufacturing feedstock.

This involves actively working with companies and organisations seeking to embrace circular economy principles into their operations so they can know who the other participants in these new supply chains are and the opportunities.

It’s time to rethink attitudes towards all of the materials we design, produce, use and discard, to see them as renewable resources if we want to reduce our reliance on finite resources with major environmental and economic impacts.

When considering that the population growth trend is expected to continue in the following decades, from a current world population of 7.6 billion to approximately 9.8 billion by 2050, our resources globally and at home need to be preserved and re-used.

So, while there is growing concern around needing greater sustainability, I actually see 2019 as a positive tipping-point year when the momentum of change embraces a circular economy. This is a period of disruption we must have.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla is a scientist, engineer, inventor and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at UNSW Sydney, Australia. She is the Director of the UNSW Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology, Director of the NSW Government’s new Circular Economy Innovation Network and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow.

Top image credit: Anna Kucera.

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