New technologies and how to build a circular economy

Oct 28, 2019

The following op ed (opinion editorial) was published in the global Recycling Technology 2020 journal and is also available via its online sister site Recycling International here.

By Professor Veena Sahajwalla, NSW Circular Director

The year of 2019 is shaping as a tipping point moment for action on addressing the challenges around global sustainability and waste management.

This is a positive development and comes as discourse across governments, researchers, not for profits and corporates is shifting to a ‘can do’ attitude to reduce waste and change attitudes, behaviours and practices.

A ground swell is underway across the globe as corporates, communities and societies are moving from the linear economic approach of ‘make, use, dispose’ to a circular economy where the aspiration is to keep materials out of landfill and incinerators and in use for as long as possible.

The realisation of the need to close the economic loop so that used materials and waste streams are treated as the renewable resources they in fact are, is dawning on decision makers the world over.

This coincides with increased scientific focus on, and business innovation around, viewing waste as a commodity to better manage long term social, environmental as well as economic impacts.

A magic transformer  

For instance, new technology and capability derived from the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, can produce building panels from old clothing and textiles, as well as plastics and waste timber and glass.

This MicrofactoryTM technology can transform waste glass into engineered flat ceramic products, which in turn have been used to make stools, table-tops, and for decorative purposes, and are now also being tested for flooring and walling applications.

It can also transform electronic waste such as phones, laptops and printers into high quality plastic filaments for 3D printing, and extract and reform metal alloys from printed circuit boards, eliminating the need for conventional smelting technologies.

Game-changing solutions

These scientifically developed microrecycling processes can provide game-changing solutions to produce materials from waste on a small scale, and demonstrate that a period of disruption is underway.

A key challenge is to harness the commercial appetite and 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, understand where and how they fit in, and what the opportunities are.

Seeking a win-win

The main difficulty is there are so many stakeholders across all the supply chains that there is no effective connectivity process for circular economy participants. An example is an organisation with a materials and waste problem might be able to send that to another company able to use those same materials in its operations, but there is no awareness of this win-win solution in local economies.

Another challenge is we need to encourage designers and producers of products, packaging and applicable services to ‘build in’ from the very beginning of the product lifecycle a consideration for how all of the materials used will become part of the circular economy when an end-user has no further need for the product and treats it as waste.

Silver lining

China’s National Sword policy banning other countries from sending their waste to that country is being replicated across Asia, and the silver lining in this development has been to cause an acceleration of positive reform around waste and recycling policy from many national, state and local governments.

In Australia, the national Government re-elected in May 2019 announced the country’s first ever ministerial role for ‘waste reduction’ and this will be connected to its foreshadowed Waste Recycling Investment Plan. Each of the State governments in Australia also now have circular economy policies and statements and are working hard to change the value chain around waste.

A positive development has been the establishment of dedicated initiatives to create networks and hubs that bring together the various stakeholders across supply chains 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 as a renewable resource through circular solutions.

Local loop-closing

In the State of NSW, for example, we are working hard to close the loop on materials in local economies where ever possible by creating awareness and new connections to create value-added products through materials re-use or transformation, particularly for materials which can be directed into high quality manufacturing solutions.

I was honoured to be appointed in March this year as the Director of the new NSW Government-funded NSW Circular Economy Innovation Network, to help drive this change across Australia’s largest State.

Global drivers

At an international level, there has been growing momentum in this space, and while this type of work is perhaps best known through UN Environment, the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with initiatives like the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy, small-scale actions and solutions through market-based networks like ours are required to meet the needs of local businesses that make up the majority of economies.

In March 2019, the European Commission adopted a comprehensive report on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan which presents its main achievements so far and sketches out future challenges to developing circular economies to reduce pressure on natural and freshwater resources, as well as ecosystems.

New Technical Committee

And in a demonstration of the growing importance of circular economy principles, in July 2019 a newly appointed International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Technical Committee (TC) was announced to help make the global circular economy a reality by steering local projects towards a sustainable, agreed global standard.

Known as ‘ISO/TC 323 – Circular Economy’, the TC will develop requirements, frameworks, guidance and support tools, with the aim of ensuring implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The TC comprises experts from over 65 countries, with Australia sitting as an observer member.

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

A better life for all

The bottom line is a circular economy creates local jobs, enhances the economy and improves social and environmental wellbeing. The pace of change must accelerate into the next decade so we can live more sustainably and harmoniously on our planet.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla is a scientist, engineer, inventor and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering 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.

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