Circular economy can cut waste but needs support

Jul 10, 2019

The following op ed (opinion editorial) was published in The Australian newspaper and the original is available via its online site here.

By Professor Veena Sahajwalla, NSW CEIN Director

Governments not just across Australia but around the world are finally scrambling in response to decisions by countries across Asia to stop taking our so-called recyclable waste materials, as highlighted by correspondent Amanda Hodge in her series.

The reality is that waste contractors across Australia have been sending the bulk of the materials we put in yellow and blue bins offshore and while various authorities chalk that up as a recycling KPI win, most of that material has ended up in landfill or burnt.

Landfill and burning waste materials – which are actually renewable resources easily capable of being reformed and repurposed – can cause pollution such as toxic leaching and greenhouse gases, so it’s vital and urgent that alternative solutions are needed.

And solutions there are, invented right here in Australia in places like UNSW’s Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre, as well as other research institutions and some companies, but left to the market alone little progress will be made because the capital investment required to unleash this sort of capability will almost always be overlooked by the bean counters.

For too long, products of all kinds have been designed without consideration of the environmental consequences of their disposal. The burden of what to do with all the unwanted items in our households has essentially fallen to consumers and local councils in the ‘down-stream’ part of the life cycle of products via bin collections and waste sorting. But much of this ‘valuable’ material has been ending up overseas or in our own landfills.

Capability derived from SMaRT Centre’s microrecycling science with our prototype green MicrofactoryTM technology can, for instance, produce building panels from old clothing and textiles. This form of clean tech or waste tech can also transform coffee grounds and cups, glass and wood waste into engineered flat-panel and stone-like products and these in turn have been used to make stools and table tops.

This capability can also extract from electronic waste such as printers, computers and mobile phones the valuable metal alloys they contain and from the plastics we can produce high quality feedstock and filament for 3D printing and other manufacturing needs.

This sort of technology ensures materials remain in use for a long as possible – metals can be used over and over, as can most materials – to create a ‘circular economy’ which aims to minimise waste by ensuring that the valuable resources contained in discarded products are kept in use.

A key problem is there is little commercial appetite or government incentive to ensure we divert from landfill the waste that can be reformed into new, valued-added materials, products and manufacturing feedstock. Some of the emergency funding from the States in response to the China waste ban should also be used to help firms adopt early technology, which in turn would have environmental, social and economic benefits.

These include the ability to create new materials and manufacturing opportunities, new jobs and boost rural and regional areas where there are stockpiles of waste and other ‘unwanted’ materials.

There are so many stakeholders across all supply chains that the challenge is to work together to find the opportunities necessary to make changes that not only reduce waste but also ensure it can be valued and used over and over as a renewable resource through new clean tech to create a true circular economy.

If designers and producers of products, packaging and related services accounted for and built in, from the very beginning of the product lifecycle, a consideration for how all of the materials in products will become part of the circular economy so they do not have to end up in landfill, then we may have a positive impact on addressing the world’s growing waste problem.

For example, using a modular design means that if a part of a product breaks, a replacement component could be made from 3D printing technology from filament made from recovered quality plastic so the whole product is not thrown in the bin. Most 3D printing feedstock used in Australia, as is the case for so many products and parts, is imported from oversees rather than produced here.

In our labs, we work with various industry partners testing this capability in their manufacturing processes, but industry needs support for capital expenditure to change and be early adopters.

A new Circular Economy Innovation Network is being formed in NSW, and some similar initiatives are underway in other states, to bring together key stakeholders and case studies to accelerate partnerships and opportunities to build the circular economy.

The creation of a true circular economy can make a big difference to accelerate the advances currently underway.

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