ABC interview on new NESP hub

Veena has spoken to ABC Radio at length about the new national NESP Sustainable Communities and Waste Hub hosted by UNSW with a consortium of universities, the CSIRO and many industry, community and government partners to help deliver end-user solutions to our domestic sustainability challenges. 

Channel – ABC Radio Tasmania

Day – Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Description – Rick Eaves interviews UNSW's Professor Veena Sahajwalla discussing the National Environment Science Program, the future of the circular economy and sustainable communities.


RICK EAVES: Recycling’s an idea, but about 15, 20 years ago some guys came out with this idea of a circular economy that, in fact, what was exciting was upcycling – things getting better as we use them. Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla has been co-hosting a seminar about the future of the circular economy, which is where recycling gets a bit more exciting. And she’s an inventor; she’s revolutionizing recycling science. Hi, Veena.

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: Good morning, Rick.

RICK EAVES: What’s so important about the circular economy as opposed to the idea simply of recycling?

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: Yeah, when you think about in a very big picture, holistic way, what you are really actually talking about is using our materials that are there in our economy as valuable resources for manufacturing. So we actually can deliver both in a way – the environmental benefits of course, but coupled with all of that is if we deliver benefits for our communities then we need to think about ways in which we can use it to manufacture new products, and that then means we’ve got to think about how we align recycling and manufacturing. But we develop new ways of doing it, and so this is where, of course, doing it at the right scale and doing it in a way that’s fit for purpose starts to come in so we can actually look at what might be possible within a certain region, and you can design solutions so that you don’t have to actually take waste over long distances. And thinking about regional solutions really allows our economy actually to grow and using these really valuable resources that so far we might just thought of them as waste.

It’s a whole different mindset, and I think this is where, of course, a lot of clever science has to come in, work that we do with businesses, with communities and governments needs to come in. And this is where, of course, a National Environment Science Program that’s been set up at the federal level to support Sustainable Communities and Waste Hub is just getting underway.

RICK EAVES: A lot of us hear the idea of sustainable communities and think of, you know, hand spinning your own wool while you’re sterilizing your own jars – like going back to the 1950s. But this is about moving forward to a world where we can consume as much as we like because we re-use everything.

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: Well, I mean, you don’t have to –

RICK EAVES: We could have nice, new things.

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: We can think about, you know, responsible consumption. And I think to me responsible consumption production is exactly where sustainable development goes, one of the goals, looking at that responsibility lies in our hands. You know, if we are consumers then we need to, of course, take that responsibility seriously. And that goes to both consumption and, of course, then when it comes to production, as businesses start to think about what their responsibilities are, then I think we can all come together as communities. Because, let’s face it, if I’m somebody working in a business but I’m also someone who lives in that community, I want to be able to deliver a win-win outcome both for local businesses, which means I can think about, you know, local job creation, but I also want to think about how will I deliver sustainability outcomes.

So it’s really about understanding all of these supply chains of different materials, whether it’s, you know, waste textiles or waste glass. And, in fact, the example of what we have just showcased recently of how we bring together these two really unlikely waste materials – glass and textiles coming out of our homes – converting those into a really hard, durable green ceramic. And this an example of where we’ve really transformed our waste into completely different products.

So our ability to, of course, do that at a scale that’s fit for purpose was something that was then supported through the New South Wales State Government through its Office of the Chief Scientist and Engineer, you know, enabling us to take what was a conceptual idea and that conceptual innovation, taking those pilot facilities out of UNSW’s labs but then taking it out into the region is a really good example.

We’ve actually recently set this up at an industrial scale here in a regional area called Cootamundra in New South Wales. And I think that to me is a great example of how science and its translation into practice can deliver on impact but equally importantly recognising that in this particular case, the role of the state government was very important in enabling that to happen. That journey is so important, that we don’t stop and just give up, but, rather, think about collaboration between, you know, how researchers in research institutes can partner with businesses. And in this case, of course, the example of working with a small business is exactly the case in point that you can actually deliver, you know, economies of purpose, and the purpose here is recycling and manufacturing.

RICK EAVES: Economies of purpose is an interesting phrase, isn’t it? You’re listening to Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla, who is a national – heading up a National Environment Science Program announced by the Federal Government looking at sustainable communities and waste and the circular economy, which could work really well in Tassie.

I mean, we tend to do the dumbest thing first. We go, “Let’s have a global economy. We’ll manufacture things in, you know, one part of the world. We’ll ship them to another part of the world. We’ll throw them out and we’ll ship them back to another part of the world to dispose of them.”

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: Yes, when you put it that way, Rick, I think –

RICK EAVES: Super dumb.

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: It sort of just brings all of that, when you verbalise it in that way, I think you’ve summed it up really well. I mean, this is where we’ve sort of become so normalised in the way we used to think about all of these issues. Whereas think if we can really shift our mindset into thinking around what we can do, you know, onshore, what we can actually produce locally and, you know, how we can actually see that being beneficial to, of course, our economy, to our local job creation, really allows us to think in a much more bigger picture way and yet think at that local regional level where we don’t see any of these end-of-life products as waste but rather just see it as another resource that’s simply waiting to be harnessed. And thinking about its transformation in a whole new life means you can have, you know, materials and products that, you know, come right back into our economy.

What we are really talking about is being very innovative and clever in the way we can do, you know, decentralized manufacturing. And I think that’s really where the future is headed. That we need to think about how we can actually take materials that we have in our hands. You know, you can imagine setting up, you know, plants, local plants, that are doing the most modern and the most sophisticated recycling by combining and partnering with manufacturing so that you do have that both win-win from an environmental and an economic point of view, so that you’re constantly innovating.

RICK EAVES: Veena, realistically, though, we’re notoriously bad in Australia at being the best at anything. We don’t have a space program that has rockets that go anywhere. Even New Zealand has a rocket. We’ve lost our car manufacturing. How realistic is it that we can create viable manufacturing again in Australia?

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: Well, look, I, of course, do firmly believe that we are really a clever bunch of people. I’ve got to say, I’ve had businesses in Tassie who’ve approached me asking to think about how we might work together. And I think so to me it’s a classic example where we’re so far ahead when it comes to thinking about recycling and manufacturing and really creating innovative products. So I do think that –

RICK EAVES: Are we really?

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: Look, absolutely. We are doing some of the most amazing things. I mean, this example of whether it’s about using waste glass or it’s about using waste plastics in a very different way. And I think that’s really the key point here. That there are lots of businesses and people who are actually doing some pretty clever things. I think what we have to do now is start to make it more and more mainstream.

What we have to do is support businesses who are doing clever things. And this is where, of course, supporting businesses means that we’re going to enable more and more of these businesses to flourish. So, yes, there are pockets of really good examples of businesses being very clever and asking us, you know, for example, if there’s a particular kind of waste that they have in their hands when they approach us, they’re really saying, “Look, we understand here this kind of plastic waste is actually too good to be thrown away. What can we do with it?”. So I think to me even asking those questions means that you’re already on that journey. And I think that’s the right place to start – is to think about recycling science, the kind of work that we are doing in Australia, but knowing full well that that science has to actually then be applied at a practical level. And then only can we deliver impact.

RICK EAVES: Great to talk to you this morning.

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: Fantastic. Well, I’ve really enjoyed my conversation, and thank you so much for having me.

RICK EAVES: Veena, how do people get hold of you if they do have waste that they want to have a look at with some scientists?

VEENA SAHAJWALLA: Look at SMART@UNSW, so, that’s SMART@UNSW and will talk about the new Sustainable Communities and Waste Hub sponsored by the National Environment Science Program and all of the activities related to this are being run here in Australia.