Op ed- Australian Manufacturing Technology Magazine

The Australian Manufacturing Technology Magazine has published an article by Prof Veena about how the world has a waste challenge, and none bigger than that posed by plastics, but solutions are coming to hand.

See the print version of the story


The world has a waste challenge, none bigger than that posed by plastics. Professor Veena Sahajwalla, UNSW SMaRT Centre Director speaks truth to plastic.

Various waste technology solutions are emerging, and some behavioural changes are taking place, but is enough being done and at the speed needed?

To help understand the scale of the challenge, consider some facts.

Statistically, Australia is one of the most wasteful developed nations, second only to the United States of America in terms of per capita plastic bags consumption. 

On average, each Australian consumes over 24 kg of plastic and uses over 230 plastic bags every year.

In 2020, only 12% of the plastic waste was actually recycled and 81% went into landfills, with a lot of it ending up in waterways and the oceans.

Many waste generate and recycling figures are actually getting worse yet we have a national government target of 80% average recovery rate from all waste streams by 2030.

The 2021 The National Plastics Plan (NPP) also says over 1 million tonnes of single-use plastics goes straight to landfill and about 130,000 tonnes of plastic leaches into Australian waterways and oceans every year.

This is equivalent to 1,280 kilograms of plastic being dumped every hour in Australia’s ocean. 

National Geographic estimates there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean and of that mass, 269,000 tonnes float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometre litter the deep sea.

One of the key plastic problems in the ocean comes from commercial and recreational fishing boats, mostly from thousands of discarded nets and lines, often called “ghost nets”.

A joint report by environmental not-for-profit environmental organisation TierraMar and the UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre outlines solutions for the fight against discarded ghost nets and other fishing marine debris in northern Australia.

Innovative and sustainable methods to detect, collect, transport and responsibly dispose of and recycle ghost nets and other plastic waste in northern Australia are outlined in the Ghost Nets report prepared for the Australian Government’s Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water.

Following receipt of the report, the Department in October 2022 opened the Ghost Nets Innovative Solutions Grants program where up to $3 million is available to fund organisations and community groups to undertake projects to address this issue.

The currents and conditions in the Arafura and Timor Seas and the Torres Strait mean that marine debris accumulates in the Gulf of Carpentaria off northern Australia, recognised as a global marine debris ‘hot spot’.

Four of the six marine turtle species found in Australian waters are listed as threatened under Australian environmental legislation and they are regularly found entangled in derelict fishing nets.

There is an opportunity to develop a range of high-quality homeware and building products made directly from ghost nets and other marine debris coming out of northern Australia.

The end products, such as ceramic tiles, could creatively reflect the unique cultures, artistic values and connections to country by local communities, and be used in the built environment as tiles for flooring, walls, tabletops and many other applications.

The SMaRT Centre has developed a range of MICROfactorieTM Technologies that can reform various wastes usually not subject to traditional recycling methods into value added materials and products, such as ecofilament for 3D printing and Green Ceramics made from textiles, broken glass and many other wastes.

While society first needs to prevent plastic and other wastes from getting into our oceans and waterways, we need innovative technical solutions to deal with existing and future wastes.

This includes having stronger ‘product stewardship’, where producers of products and users of products are more accountable for when they come to their so-called end of life, and better collection and recycling, using new technologies to extract and reform the valuable elements they contain.

Better behavioural responses are also needed, including awareness campaigns for the public and industry.

A range of new and emerging regulatory standards have been introduced by all levels of government, including national waste export bans and prohibition of single use of plastic bags, and stronger product stewardship rules likely coming to make manufacturers and retailers more accountable for the waste their products create.

But what do we do with all of the waste that used to be shipped offshore and is still being landfilled?

In terms of technical solutions, we need to do much more than simply recycle PET bottles back into PET bottles, because most plastics are complex and are not being repurposed via traditional recycling methods.

The first independently and commercially operated UNSW SMaRT Centre designed Plastics and Green Ceramics MICROfactorieTM modules are being operated by collaborators Shoalhaven City Council and Kandui Technologies in regional NSW.

The council’s plastics module aims to remanufacture around many tonnes of waste plastics into filament for 3D printing per year, and its Green Ceramics MICROfactorieTM module also being built expects to reform hundreds of tonnes of glass and mattresses per year into green ceramic tiles and other forms of furnishings in the council’s operated facility. 

The new international plastics agreement made in 2022 at a United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi binds UN member states to develop a legally binding treaty on plastics.

The resolution calls for a legally binding instrument that addresses the "full lifecycle" of plastics, from production to disposal. It names circular economy approaches, product design, resource efficiency and environmentally sound waste management as objectives of the instrument.

It also highlights "the importance of promoting sustainable design of products and materials so that they can be reused, remanufactured or recycled and therefore retained in the economy for as long as possible".

Climate change narratives often overlook the need for more sustainable manufacturing and waste management practices, where waste is used as a resource.

Manufacturing that aligns with innovative waste management, recycling and materials circularity are central to helping address the globe’s biggest challenges, including waste plastics.

A combination of new science, technical innovation, strong industry collaboration and supportive government priorities will deliver the solutions needed for a more sustainable future in Australia, and the world.

In the sustainability space, the big challenges are clear.

Reduce harmful atmospheric emissions, deliver greater renewable energy, readdress the growing waste crisis, enhance our manufacturing and sovereign capability, and reduce the reliance upon polluting global supply chains.

There is growing appetite in industry and society to tackle these issues more swiftly.

Australia has world-leading scientific research and development institutions and leaders, but many feel progress on delivering practical outcomes to our big sustainability challenges has been lacking.

Collaboration through co-investing and nurturing pathways to innovation and economic success must be our focus if we want to realise that “waste is a resource” that can be used in so many new, innovative ways.

As we develop new and transformative approaches to what needs to be a new era of ‘green manufacturing’, we need to build new and localised supply chains that are laterally integrated.

The lateral integration of supply chains of green materials and products is needed to ensure we connect different sectors across our regions.

This integration would build interconnectivity between and across markets, sectors and logistics networks, enabling decentralised, localised and regional pathways to new national and global opportunities.

This can be done for micro to macro materials and manufacturing opportunities, eventually leading to mega solutions, depending on the volumes and values associated with the waste materials concerned.

Such an approach will boost our sustainability and sovereign capacity.

A recent important breakthrough by the UNSW SMaRT Centre, where carbon and hydrogen needed to make steel come from various wastes, including plastics, found waste materials can actually improve the efficiency of steel making.

This represents the next generation of SMaRT Centre’s patented Polymer Injection Technology, known as Green SteelTM, with steel industrial partner, Molycop, which started out as the Commonwealth Steel Company over 100 years ago.

The first 1.0 generation of Green SteelTM is well known for using millions of waste rubber tyres destined for landfill as an alternative source for partial replacement coke and coal in electric arc furnace steel making.

But the next generation of Green SteelTM research now shows waste plastics and bio-waste like coffee grounds are also effective and contain hydrogen which improves the efficiency of steel making.

This technology locks the carbon from waste resources into the steel, hence causing no emissions and delivers a form of carbon capture.

With the right will, society can find a purpose for most waste types by understanding the elemental value inherent in it.

This can only be done through rigorous scientific analysis and active collaboration with industry, the community and governments to ensure innovations are taken up and used.

By better valuing our waste materials and creating circularity for their reuse, we can help the world be more sustainable and tackle our big global challenges.