Waste stockpiles – why we need to address the problem

by Tiffany Paczek
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Recycling expert Professor Veena Sahajwalla, director of UNSW Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT), has welcomed the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications Inquiry into the recent waste and recycling report, but she is calling for immediate action on the growing stockpile problem.

“I commend the Committee on its extensive work and thorough report, which highlights the current recycling crisis in Australia, partly resulting from the China waste importation ban,” Sahajwalla says. “The report’s headline recommendations to ban single use plastics by 2023 and to call for a national deposit container scheme are commendable but a solution is available right now to reduce stockpiles.”

As detailed in the UNSW Sydney submission (number 62) to the Inquiry, the SMaRT Centre scientifically developed technology that enables waste streams like plastics and glass to be reformed into valuable resources as inputs for manufacturing of existing and new products, and at remote and regional locations where the report calls for special attention on waste stockpiles.

UNSW has developed the world’s first ‘microfactories’ to take all of the recycled containers and materials put out in council bins, along with other waste streams, and convert them into reformed materials such as metals alloys, plastic filament for 3D printing and glass panels for building products.

“Our new recycling and reforming process has the potential to deliver economic and environmental benefits wherever waste is stockpiled, and is modelled on our recently launched world-first e-waste (electronic waste) microfactory, which reforms the main materials in things like mobile phones, computers and electronic hardware,” Sahajwalla says.

“The main impediment to deploying these new methods of effective reformation of waste items in this efficient, economically productive and environmentally sustainable way is the lack of real incentive by all governments for industry to adopt them. I think we just need more awareness about this microfactory technology.”

The microfactories consists of a series of small machines and devices that use patented technology to turn discarded products and containers into new and reusable materials. It involves a number of small machines for this process and they fit into a small room. The discarded devices and items are first placed into a module to break them down. The next module may involve a special robot to extract useful parts.

Another module uses a small furnace to separate the metallic parts into valuable materials, while another one reforms the plastic into a high-grade filament suitable for 3D printing. A microfactory can involve one or a series of modular machines and be easily transported or relocated to where a stockpile or suitable site exists.

Costings show an investment in a microfactory can pay off in less than three years. Glass stockpiles alone amount to more than one million tonnes per year nationally. In total, Australia produces nearly 65 million tonnes of industrial and domestic solid waste each year.

Sahajwalla says 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 impact of burning waste and dumping it in landfill.

“Rather than export our rubbish overseas, the microfactory technology has the potential for us to export valuable materials and newly manufactured products instead,” Sahajwalla says. “Through the microfactory technology, we can enhance our economy and be part of the global supply chain by supplying more valuable materials around the world and stimulating manufacturing innovation in Australia.”

For more information visit the UNSW SMaRT Centre website: smart.unsw.edu.au.

Image courtesy of UNSW.

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