Woman of steel: Veena Sahajwalla is the superstar of sustainability

by Michelle Dunner
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It’s one seriously impressive resumé. Veena Sahajwalla is a professor, engineer, inventor, TV star, but the Indian-born academic is characteristically modest about her stellar career.

As director of the SMaRT Centre at UNSW (University of New South Wales), Sahajwalla has been at the forefront of research into sustainable materials and technology, with a particular emphasis on creating solutions of environmental benefit.

She’s the inventor of ‘green steel’ – a process that takes recycled plastics and rubber tyres into steelmaking – in itself an enormous contribution to reduce the use of coke in electric arc steel furnaces.

But it’s probably never occurred to Sahajwalla to rest on her laurels. Her enthusiasm to continue to find another way of helping businesses around the world be more resource efficient and environmentally sustainable seems to be without end.

One of the more recent projects, developed with her SMaRT Centre team, is the advent of microfactories that help overcome issues with scale for businesses looking to recycle and reprocess materials (featured in CWS Issue 6). Simply, Sahajwalla and her team look at the word ‘problem’ and associate it with ‘opportunity’.

“I’ve always been fascinated by materials and how we use them in so many different ways in our lives,” she says. “Let’s look at what electronic products have done for us; they’ve been an equalising force in our society because they allow people all over the world to access information and services, such as education and health. It’s incredible that such small things in our hands can give us the opportunity to be so well-connected.

“But the other end of the spectrum annoys me – all the things we take for granted, the resources that go into providing basic items, such as clothes, that we then discard without a moment’s thought. We’ve gone down a path where consumerism has, ironically, put us out of touch with reality, even though we’ve never been so connected.”

In that linear ‘take, make and discard’ framework, Sahajwalla says it’s incumbent upon every person to ask themselves whether such an ethos is a reasonable thing to do.

“If we all stop to ask ourselves, before we throw out those clothes or juice bottles or phones, whether there is another option, a transformative approach for those materials. We may make a difference – and inspire others as well.”

That attitude harks back to Sahajwalla’s upbringing in Mumbai. “Every day I saw people who had so little make so much out of it and today I’m always looking for another use for something, or to give a new life to something that’s not wanted by someone else.

“I was out driving one day and saw a garage sale. I bought a denim shirt that doubles as a jacket for $2. The woman selling it said it didn’t fit her anymore, but it was perfect for me for the weekends when I didn’t want a heavy jacket. I love that whole process.”

Veena Sahajwalla

SHARING THE RESOURCES AND RESPONSIBILITY

Sahajwalla says the sustainability of our planet rests on collaboration. “My personal journey has been about seeing materials and whether they can have a new use or a new life. That applies to clothes, phones, computers – passing them on to people who need them or taking the materials and using them in a new way to achieve a better outcome for us all.

“That’s where my research spun out. Let’s take clothes – if something is no longer wearable, the fabrics might contain synthetic polymers that are still useful and valuable. They can be transformed and that’s probably the crux of what we do at the SMaRT Centre, to enable transformation. So what if a piece of clothing has been ripped apart? What about that plastic bottle that has a short life in the hands of the consumer? Our team looks at what it could become and how that transformation could occur.

“Green manufacturing is something I get very excited about. We need to explore multiple processing solutions – low temperature, high temperature, what the possibilities of the materials are.

“And apart from looking at the process of developing products through green manufacturing, we need to address the safety and sustainability challenges – so that we don’t compromise the rights of humans to be safe.”

But what does sustainability actually mean? Sahajwalla says it’s much more than recycling and reuse. “If we have core principles of safety, a commitment to making a high quality and durable product, then it’s possible we don’t have as much of a ‘throw away’ mentality.

“A critical component is the social licence. There’s no point looking at transforming a product unless we ask ourselves if someone will be prepared to use the end result. We’ve seen this at a micro-level – families handing down clothes and toys is something we all do. If it’s acceptable to do that within your family, then we should all be excited to broaden out this concept to a macro view.”

Sahajwalla urges everyone to consider the impact of their choices. “Regardless of what forum I speak at, community- based or technical conferences, I try to encourage people to unleash the power of their imagination to deliver true value to society.

“Can we all collaborate? Society, business, academia; everyone coming together to work on what needs to happen to save on consumption of materials and energy, minimise waste and pollution and how we can help.

“If we can achieve a win/win outcome, if we can feed all the micro innovations happening throughout the world into transformations and if we can look at the economic viability of any of these solutions, then we’ll get there.”

This article also appears in Issue 7 of CWS magazine.

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