When people think about recycling, they usually imagine used products turning into a like-for-like replacement: plastic bottles into plastic bottles; glass jars into glass jars. But next generation recycling and upcycling technologies developed in Veena Sahajwalla’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology (SMaRT) at University of New South Wales will unlock endless possibilities for “reform”.
SMaRT is now producing a range of upcycled building materials out of its microfactory in the university’s basement, including green ceramics made out of waste glass, plastic and textiles and a type of green steel that involves extracting hydrogen and carbon from old rubber tyres and plastic.
It’s also created a new green aluminium product using a new technique to recover aluminium from complex, multilayered packaging, such as food and coffee packaging, and turn it into high-quality green aluminium.
Sahajwalla was also recently picked to lead national research into sustainable communities and waste, as part of the federal government’s $149 million second phase of the National Environmental Science Program.
“Recycling is about more than converting a product from like to like – you want to be recycling from one product to another,” the Australian Research Council Laureate Scientia Professor told The Fifth Estate in an interview before Building Circularity.
She said the notion of “reforming” is an important piece of the circular economy puzzle.
“You can reform structure, reform products, reform chemistry.”
She likes to think of “desynthesising” products into their raw materials and then “resynthesising” them into something new of high value.
For example, her team’s method of recycling ewaste involves first crushing electronics down, using a basic robot to extract useful parts before heating materials in a small furnace to separate parts into useable materials like metal alloys.
Bridging the gap between the lab and the market
The microfactory at the university was set up because Sahajwalla wanted to bridge the gap between research and commercialisation of products.
Commercialising products out of the lab can be slow as investors need to be 100 per cent confident in the viability of a product before backing its manufacture at scale.
The microfactory allows for flexibility, with more room to test and develop products in collaboration with private partners.
The centre is currently supplying Mirvac with its green ceramic products and Sahajwalla said she often gets excited text messages with new ideas for applying the recycled material: in flooring tiles, kitchen splash backs, wall features and more.
The university is currently building another factory in Cootamundra to manufacture more of the green ceramics products.
The green steel Holy Grail
The polymer injection technology behind the SMaRT centre’s green steel product has now been patented and commercialised in Australia and overseas in countries including South Korea, Thailand, the UK and Norway.
SMaRT teamed up with OneSteel to commercialise the product, which Sahajwalla said was created with the view to eliminate coal-based materials from the popular building material.
While this iteration of the product still relies on some coal and coke, she said the “Holy Grail” is completely eliminating coal and coke from steel making.
Simplifying products isn’t the answer
Sahajwalla said that some types of products, such as electronics, need to be really sophisticated because “we expect so much from them”.
That’s why she doesn’t tend to talk about designing for disassembly.
“It’s a simplistic view that it’s about mechanically unpacking something so that it can be put back into production.”
While Sahajwalla believes innovation has a key role to play in the transition
to a circular economy, she said product designers should also be thinking about the lifespan of their products.
“Both the start and ends of the product lifecycle need to be working together in a holistic manner to close the loop.”
She said procurement policies that prioritise products with non-virgin materials are an effective lever for creating demand for upcycled products.