The Four Corners report on rorts, dodgy operators and mountains of recyclables being treated like rubbish has got people wondering whether to even bother recycling. But innovators in the space are highlighting a new world of possibilities for resource re-use.
Repurpose those glass mountains
Sustainability Victoria is funding new research into ways glass can be recycled, and acting chief executive Carl Muller said example of old tyres and toner cartridges being used in road materials shows there are opportunities for other products.
SV has invested more than $2 million to develop markets for glass products via partnerships with Deakin, Melbourne, Monash and Swinburne Universities, industry, and the Australian Packaging Covenant.
“Researchers are working on new uses for glass and plastics and while there are challenges, we’re helping to create new markets and technologies, jobs and, most importantly, ensure our community has confidence in the resource recovery sector,” Mr Muller said.
Projects underway include Swinburne University researchers investigating how glass and flexible plastics could be added to a road base mix.
RMIT is looking at new processing methods to recycle glass into household items including kitchen bench-tops, floors, wall or roof tiles.
The University of Melbourne is developing a technology in partnership with PrefabAus that could see fine glass particles incorporated into lightweight concrete for pre-fabricated buildings.
Mr Muller said adding glass to the panels reduced the greenhouse gas emissions generated in the concrete-making process as well as reducing the need to use virgin raw materials. If the research stacks up, Australian prefab products could be used globally and generate jobs and investment.
Monash University researchers, meanwhile, are looking at how flexible plastics can be used in railways sleepers, aiming to develop a locally made product containing 100 per cent recycled material that can compete with international imports.
Lismore’s got a grip on glass
The city of Lismore already uses granulated glass in road base, for backfill material and for bedding for pipes.
It won an award last month at the Civil Contractors Federation Earth Awards on a project that saw glass sand used for bedding at a sewage pump station project.
Trials are currently underway at Southern Cross University to establish if the sand can also be used in making concrete.
The method used for crushing the glass into granular sand allows the council recycling facility to process even dirty and broken glass. It also processes crockery.
It has been up and running since 2014, and currently processes around 6000 tonnes of glass a year – glass that had previously been sent to Queensland for recycling but was mostly ending up in landfill.
Lismore is within 150km of the Gold Coast, so sending waste interstate would be permitted by the proximity principle – it just chooses not to.
There has been one exception to this, following the March floods, when council was inundated with waste. Some was sent to a tea tree bioenergy landfill at Ipswich. The landfill is an old coal mine that will be filled, capped and the methane it produces used to generate electricity to power nearby homes.
“While this was necessary due to the sheer volume of waste collected during the flood, our normal practice is not to send waste away for landfill,” the council’s commercial services business manager Kevin Trustum said.
Not only is Lismore handling all its own waste, it is also taking in recyclables from four neighbouring shires for processing.
It invested $3.65 million in constructing the Lismore Materials Recovery Facility, which processes 15,000 tonnes of recyclables annually including organics, glass, paper and cardboard, plastics, aluminium and steel, recycle bagged plastic bags and soft plastics, and bagged polystyrene.
The MRF also makes a profit for the council.
Mr Trustum said in the next financial year, the council will build a $2.5 million commercial waste sorting facility, which will hopefully reduce waste going to Lismore’s landfill by another 50 per cent – around 10,000 tonnes a year.
The machine will essentially be a large conveyor belt, and staff will be employed to remove any recyclable materials so these can be fed into the recycling stream.
“We are always trying to improve our recycling and find ways to keep reducing what is going to landfill,” he said.
“Not only is this good for the environment but we will save money as we will not have to pay the waste levy on materials that don’t go to landfill. On top of this, we can earn money by selling more recyclables and provide jobs for local people.”
No more flaming tyre piles
Green Distillation Technologies has developed a “destructive distillation” process that turns tyres into useable oil, elemental carbon and steel. It already operates a plant at Warren, in regional NSW.
A small percentage of the oil collected provides power for the plant; the rest of the oil is on-sold, along with the carbon and steel.
Now it has teamed up with Tytec Group to establish a new enterprise in Perth, Tytec Recycling Pty Ltd, to undertake the economic recycling of the kind of humungous tyres (known as OTR tyres) used by mining trucks and other large plant.
Using the destructive distillation process, it is estimated a single OTR tyre that weighs 3.5 tonnes can yield 1500 litres of oil, 1.5 tonnes of carbon, as well as the reinforcing steel, which can go back to the tyre manufacturer for reuse.
It is expected the facility will be operational by June 2018. It will have a capacity of 5000 tonnes of OTR tyres per year, which will amount to over two million litres of oil, approximately 2000 tonnes of carbon and 1000 tonnes of steel.
The company said the Hyder Report in 2013-14 estimated there are 155,000 tonnes of OTR end-of-life tyres of various sizes generated in Australia each year of which 79.4 per cent are left on site as currently there is no economic and green method of recycling them.
Green Distillation Technologies chief operating officer Trevor Bayley said the construction of the world’s first processing plant for whole OTR tyres comes after more than 12 months of logistical research and development work undertaken at the designated Tytec Recycling R&D plant, which is a section of the GDT facility in Warren.
“This work has developed a solution to the problem of handling a four-tonne tyre with a diameter of four metres or more, through a complex heat and chemical process at sufficient volume to make it economically viable.
“Our process will turn a very large and difficult to handle environmental waste problem into high value commodities, which is a result consistent with the highest aspirations of the circular economy,” Mr Bayley said.
The process also has export potential.
“We attended MinExpo, the world’s biggest mining expo in Las Vegas last year and our process was the sensation of the show,” Tytec Recycling chairman Brett Fennell said.
“We received enquiries from mining companies in Mexico, Columbia, Brazil, Canada, the United States and Chile and the market in these countries is immense as they all have large mining industries and no current economic green means of recycling their used OTR tyres.
“The construction of this OTR tyre recycling facility is an important step for the Australian mining industry as up to this stage the problem was being buried for the next generation to solve.”
Organics needs to be scaled up
The Australian Organics Recycling Association is calling on households, businesses and governments to “rethink” attitudes to organic waste.
Currently, of the approximately 19 million tonnes of organic waste generated in Australia, only around six million tonnes is recycled.
“We look for ways to ‘get rid’ of waste but we need to start managing this material as a resource,” AORA executive director Martin Tower said.
He said organic waste recycling needed to happen at an “industrial scale” with products then being used to enhance the production capacity of agricultural soils.
“If you think that a single, state-of-the-art composting facility is going to cost between $12-20 million, and you need one at every council depot to make it work, then it’s not an overnight fix; it’s something we need to transition towards,” he said.
“Also, it’s important to remember that only 50 per cent of the food that is manufactured ever makes it into a human body – there’s the stuff that perishes in transport, doesn’t get sold in the supermarket and doesn’t leave the farm. It’s a staggering amount.”
Mr Martin said there was also a need to tackle the issue of contamination in terms of organics sent for recycling.
“Ninety per cent of Aussie families would have a plastic bag on the kitchen bench and after dinner they scrape food waste into the bag, along with some packaging, and maybe something the dog’s dropped, then they tie it up and put it in the bin.
“Now that is just utterly useless in terms of the recycling process. You’ve just vastly increased the cost to recycle most of the material in that bag because it hasn’t been source segregated.”