Clos­ing the loop in Aus­tralia's waste cri­sis


Gov­ern­ments and in­dus­try around Aus­tralia are des­per­ately grap­pling with the grow­ing waste and re­cy­cling prob­lem that has re­sulted from China’s ban this year on im­ports of for­eign waste. The ban has re­sulted in large in­creases in stock­piles around the na­tion; mean­while prices for waste such as glass are at a low point (it is now cheaper to im­port than re­cy­cle glass) and govern­ment emer­gency fund­ing pack­ages and re­views are un­der­way to work out so­lu­tions.

This cri­sis has brought into sharp fo­cus that Aus­tralia's waste is Aus­tralia's prob­lem, at the very same time that con­sumers, more than ever, are seek­ing to re­duce en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts and cre­ate more sus­tain­able out­comes across all ar­eas of our so­ci­ety.

In June, the Se­nate Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on En­vi­ron­ment and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions In­quiry into Waste and Re­cy­cling, re­leased its re­port. It is a

1 sober­ing read.

There are a num­ber of com­mend­able rec­om­men­da­tions within the re­port, in­clud­ing its ‘head­line' rec­om­men­da­tions to ban sin­gle use plas­tics by 2023 and a call for a na­tional

A so­lu­tion is avail­able right now to re­duce waste stock­piles, en­cour­age in­no­va­tion, boost Aus­tralian man­u­fac­tur­ing and cre­ate jobs.

con­tainer de­posit scheme. But it could have gone fur­ther, given that a so­lu­tion is avail­able right now to re­duce waste stock­piles, en­cour­age in­no­va­tion, boost Aus­tralian man­u­fac­tur­ing and cre­ate jobs.

As de­tailed on page 88 of the re­port, tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped by my team at UNSW'S Cen­tre for Sus­tain­able Ma­te­ri­als Re­search and Tech­nol­ogy (SMART) Cen­tre en­ables waste streams like plas­tics and glass to be re­formed into valu­able re­sources for use in man­u­fac­tur­ing. This can be done at re­mote and re­gional lo­ca­tions, where the re­port calls for spe­cial at­ten­tion on grow­ing waste stock­piles.

Then Fed­eral En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Josh Fry­den­berg, ear­lier this year called for the in­cin­er­a­tion of waste to gen­er­ate en­ergy to be con­sid­ered by the States, but this should not be part of the so­lu­tion when new, more ef­fec­tive and sus­tain­able meth­ods of deal­ing with waste are now avail­able, and the re­port rightly does not rec­om­mend in­cin­er­a­tion.

The ACT Govern­ment's cur­rent re­view into waste man­age­ment strate­gies aims to help it di­vert most waste away from land­fill and have the lo­cal waste and re­cy­cling sec­tor be car­bon neu­tral by 2025.2 Dis­ap­point­ingly, it pro­poses burn­ing waste for en­ergy as one of its four strate­gies.

I ap­plaud the ACT Govern­ment for its very proac­tive stance on en­vi­ron­men­tal

sus­tain­abil­ity and waste man­age­ment – and its tar­get to in­crease its al­ready laud­able rate of re­cy­cling from 70 per cent to 90 per cent – but the process of burn­ing waste to cre­ate en­ergy means that re­cy­clable ma­te­ri­als are lost for­ever as forms of re­new­able re­sources.

In ad­di­tion, the NSW In­de­pen­dent Plan­ning Com­mis­sion in July for­mally re­jected a pro­posal to build, in East­ern Creek in Syd­ney's west, what would have been the State's first waste to en­ergy in­cin­er­a­tor.3 This is a great out­come be­cause we know met­als can be re­pur­posed over and over as a re­new­able re­source, and even many plas­tics can be re­formed and reused a num­ber of times.

In July, the Vic­to­rian Govern­ment an­nounced a new mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar re­cy­cling pack­age to deal with the prob­lem of grow­ing stock­piles of waste and re­cy­cling ma­te­ri­als due to the China waste ban. 4

This fol­lows a NSW Govern­ment an­nounce­ment in March5 of a sup­port pack­age of up to $47 mil­lion to help lo­cal govern­ment and in­dus­try re­spond to these global changes. The sup­port pack­age is be­ing funded by the Waste Less, Re­cy­cle More ini­tia­tive and pro­vides a range of short, medium and long-term ini­tia­tives to en­sure kerb­side re­cy­cling con­tin­ues and to pro­mote in­dus­try in­no­va­tion.

Again, I com­mend these Gov­ern­ments for their com­pre­hen­sive pack­ages but what they both miss is that a so­lu­tion is avail­able right now to help not only re­duce grow­ing stock­piles, but to cre­ate lo­cal jobs through Aus­tralian in­no­va­tion.

In a UNSW pa­per re­cently pub­lished in the in­ter­na­tional pub­li­ca­tion Jour­nal of Cleaner Pro­duc­tion 6, I re­veal our lat­est

SMART Cen­tre re­search about a cost­ef­fec­tive new process for trans­form­ing mixed waste glass into high-value build­ing ma­te­ri­als with­out the need for remelt­ing. This new re­cy­cling process has the po­ten­tial to de­liver eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits wher­ever waste glass is stock­piled and is mod­elled on our re­cently launched world-first e-waste mi­cro­fac­tory.

The main prob­lem is that ma­te­ri­als cur­rently ‘re­cy­cled' are very low value and thus are treated that way, often end­ing up in land­fill, whereas when treated ap­pro­pri­ately these dis­carded

The process of burn­ing waste to cre­ate en­ergy means that re­cy­clable ma­te­ri­als are lost for­ever as forms of re­new­able re­sources.

con­sumer items can be trans­formed into high value ma­te­ri­als to be used over and over again.

Our world-first e-waste mi­cro­fac­tory was launched in April by NSW En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Gabrielle Up­ton, and is de­signed to trans­form the com­po­nents of dis­carded elec­tronic items like mo­bile phones, lap­tops and print­ers into new and reusable ma­te­ri­als that be­come in­puts and feed­stock for the man­u­fac­ture of new prod­ucts.


We are now build­ing our first ‘green' mi­cro­fac­tory to take many of the re­cy­cled con­tain­ers and ma­te­ri­als put out in coun­cil bins, and other waste streams, and con­vert them into valu­able ma­te­ri­als such as plas­tic fil­a­ment for 3D print­ing, and glass pan­els for build­ing prod­ucts.

So, what is a mi­cro­fac­tory? Tra­di­tional man­u­fac­tur­ing often takes place in large and im­mo­bile fac­tory sites near raw ma­te­rial sup­plies or in re­mote lo­ca­tions that de­pend on re­sources ob­tained from sup­pli­ers lo­cated far away or even over­seas. But the mi­cro­fac­to­ries model we've de­vel­oped can op­er­ate on a site as small as 50 square me­tres, about the size of a triple-car garage, and can be lo­cated wher­ever waste may be stock­piled, re­sult­ing in rel­a­tively lower op­er­a­tional and main­te­nance over­heads. Cost­ings show an in­vest­ment in a mi­cro­fac­tory can pay off in less than three years.

Our mi­cro­fac­to­ries con­sist of a se­ries of small ma­chines and de­vices that use patented tech­nol­ogy. The dis­carded e-waste de­vices, for in­stance, are first placed into a mod­ule to break them down. The next mod­ule in­volves a spe­cial ro­bot to ex­tract use­ful parts, an­other mod­ule uses a small fur­nace to sep­a­rate the metal­lic parts into valu­able ma­te­ri­als, while an­other re­forms the plas­tic into a high-grade fil­a­ment suit­able for 3D print­ing.

In the case of glass, 100% of the waste in­put can be re­formed; with plas­tic there is about 80% re­cov­ery. In ad­di­tion, mi­cro­fac­to­ries pro­duce clean gases be­cause we op­er­ate ma­chin­ery at tem­per­a­tures that don't pro­duce tox­ins.

Our mi­cro­fac­to­ries can not only pro­duce high per­for­mance ma­te­ri­als and prod­ucts, they elim­i­nate the ne­ces­sity of ex­pen­sive ma­chin­ery, save on the ex­trac­tion from the en­vi­ron­ment of yet more nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, and re­duce the need for burn­ing waste or dump­ing it in land­fill.

Glass stock­piles alone amount to more than one mil­lion tonnes per year na­tion­ally. Aus­tralia pro­duces nearly 65 mil­lion tonnes of in­dus­trial and do­mes­tic solid waste each year. Our new process can trans­form large quan­ti­ties of mixed waste glass into glass-based tiles sim­i­lar in look and per­for­mance to var­i­ous nat­u­ral and engi­neered stone prod­ucts on the mar­ket.

So, a so­lu­tion is at hand, in terms of hav­ing the tech­nol­ogy to deal with this na­tional prob­lem and be­ing able to op­er­ate di­rectly at the sites where the stock­piles are grow­ing. Im­por­tantly, this so­lu­tion can also cre­ate a rev­enue stream from the re­formed ma­te­ri­als.

The so­cial and eco­nomic ben­e­fits from this tech­nol­ogy come on top of the en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits. Waste mi­cro­fac­to­ries can trans­form the man­u­fac­tur­ing land­scape in Aus­tralia, es­pe­cially in re­mote lo­ca­tions where typ­i­cally the lo­gis­tics of hav­ing waste trans­ported or pro­cessed are

Cost­ings show an in­vest­ment in a mi­cro­fac­tory can pay off in less than three years.

pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. This is es­pe­cially ben­e­fi­cial for is­land mar­kets and re­mote and re­gional towns.

Through the mi­cro­fac­tory tech­nol­ogy, we can en­hance our econ­omy, stim­u­late man­u­fac­tur­ing in­no­va­tion in Aus­tralia and be part of the global sup­ply chain of valu­able ma­te­ri­als. This UNSW work is aligned with the Ad­vanced Man­u­fac­tur­ing Growth Cen­tre (AMGC) 8, which is a key plank of the Aus­tralian Govern­ment's In­dus­try Growth Cen­tres Ini­tia­tive and is part of a $248 mil­lion ini­tia­tive to es­tab­lish Growth Cen­tres in Aus­tralia.

In July, at a spe­cial Amgc-spon­sored sum­mit at UNSW9 ex­plor­ing the rein­ven­tion of Aus­tralian man­u­fac­tur­ing, in­dus­try lead­ers from CSIRO, NSW En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Au­thor­ity (EPA), In­no­va­tive Man­u­fac­tur­ing CRC, UNSW Sci­ence, En­gi­neer­ing and oth­ers met to dis­cuss in­dus­try chal­lenges and for a tour of the SMART e-waste mi­cro­fac­tory.

“One-in-10 Aus­tralians are em­ployed in man­u­fac­tur­ing and this num­ber will con­tinue to grow,” said Michael Sharpe, NSW Di­rec­tor of AMGC. “Col­lab­o­ra­tion is now es­sen­tial for man­u­fac­tur­ing. We are break­ing down bar­ri­ers by get­ting in­dus­try and re­searchers work­ing to­gether and pro­duc­ing new ma­te­ri­als and pro­cesses. We are evolv­ing from an in­dus­try stuck in our own fac­to­ries to break­ing down bar­ri­ers and work­ing to­gether.”

At the Sum­mit, Alan Wigg, Project Of­fi­cer at NSW EPA, ad­dressed the im­pli­ca­tions of China's 'Na­tional Sword' pol­icy and the coun­try's re­cent re­stric­tions on im­ports of re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als and man­u­fac­tur­ing.

“There is dif­fi­culty find­ing end mar­kets for re­cy­clable ma­te­rial, and limited lo­cal re­pro­cess­ing. The fun­da­men­tal prob­lem that needs to be ad­dressed is the state's de­pen­dence on ex­port­ing re­cy­clable ma­te­ri­als,” said Mr Wigg. “A global shift to­wards cir­cu­lar econ­omy is oc­cur­ring, and Na­tional Sword presents a unique op­por­tu­nity for NSW to de­velop lo­cal end mar­kets for re­cy­cled prod­ucts and stim­u­late in­dus­try in­vest­ment.”

Mr Wigg said a new NSW Govern­ment grant, the Prod­uct Im­prove­ment Pro­gram, would tar­get

10 the lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor as well as waste re­cy­cling fa­cil­i­ties. The pro­gram will al­lo­cate $4.5 mil­lion for projects that re­duce the amount of un­re­cy­clable ma­te­rial left at the end of the re­cy­cling process, with grants sup­port­ing up to 50% of the cap­i­tal costs for equip­ment or in­fra­struc­ture.

“One of the main changes to pre­vi­ous pro­grams is in­clud­ing the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor,” said Mr Wigg. “A ma­jor pro­gram ob­jec­tive is to in­crease the use of re­cov­ered plas­tics, glass, and mixed pa­per/card­board in the man­u­fac­ture of prod­ucts within NSW. We are en­cour­ag­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween sup­pli­ers of re­cy­cled ma­te­rial and po­ten­tial users of that ma­te­rial.”

The SMART and AMGC part­ner­ship has helped at­tract in­dus­try in­ter­est in the mi­cro­fac­tory tech­nol­ogy, and SMART is now in part­ner­ship with sev­eral busi­nesses and or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing e-waste re­cy­cler TES, min­ing man­u­fac­turer Moly-cop, and Dres­den, which makes spec­ta­cles (see break­out case study).

But un­less all lev­els of govern­ment in­volved in waste and re­cy­cling put in­cen­tives in place, busi­ness and

Un­less all lev­els of govern­ment in­volved in waste and re­cy­cling put in­cen­tives in place, busi­ness and coun­cils will be slow to cap­i­talise on the po­ten­tial to lead the world in re­form­ing waste.

coun­cils will be slow to cap­i­talise on the po­ten­tial to lead the world in re­form­ing waste into some­thing valu­able and reusable.

The Com­mon­wealth Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment and En­ergy re­cently started the first re­view of the Prod­uct Stew­ard­ship Act 2011, along with changes to the Na­tional Tele­vi­sion and Com­puter Re­cy­cling Scheme. These re­views, look­ing at the ef­fects of the dis­posal of prod­ucts and their as­so­ci­ated waste, are an­other op­por­tu­nity for greater sus­tain­able prac­tices and re­duc­ing the amount of waste go­ing into land­fill and stock­pil­ing.

New ma­te­ri­als, crit­i­cal parts and com­po­nents can then be ex­ported to the rest of the world, con­tribut­ing to an ecosys­tem that sup­ports the econ­omy and is part of the global sup­ply chain.

Grow­ing and cre­at­ing new prod­ucts en­ables busi­nesses of all sizes to de­velop in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions, build on the back of ex­ist­ing prac­tices, and turn Aus­tralian in­no­va­tion into a so­lu­tion for one of our most press­ing global prob­lems.

IM­AGE: © Kevin Doo­ley-flickr

IM­AGE: © UNSW Me­dia

IM­AGE: NSW En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Gabrielle Up­ton and Prof Veena Sahajwalla when the min­is­ter opened the e-waste mi­cro­fac­tory in April 2018

FACT: In Ocea­nia, the to­tal e-waste gen­er­a­tion was 0.7 mil­lion tonnes in (Mt) 2016. The top coun­try with the high­est e-waste gen­er­a­tion in ab­so­lute quan­ti­ties was Aus­tralia (0.57 Mt). In 2016, Aus­tralia gen­er­ated 23.6 kg per per­son and New Zealand 20.1 kg per per­son.

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