Op ed: use waste to manufacture our electrical future

Recycling International has published a UNSW SMaRT Centre opinion editorial (op ed) by Prof Veena about how decarbonisation narratives often overlook the need to use waste as a resource for the manufacturing of electrification components.

The op ed is made available under Creative Commons copyright licence.

Read the op ed as published by Recycling International

Climate change narratives often overlook the need for more sustainable manufacturing and waste management practices. Manufacturing that aligns with innovative waste management, recycling and materials circularity are central to helping address the globe’s biggest challenges.

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 is lacking.

It is understandable people feel this way. We have record amounts of waste going into landfill and stockpiles. We are burying, burning, and polluting our oceans with many highly valuable “waste” materials.

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.

I see very bright future because there are many examples that Australia is actually making progress across these areas to create a circular economy. Sustainability needs to be at the heart of design, production and materials usage, so it is vital to ensure waste is used as a source of raw materials for manufacturing.

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. This will help 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 materials concerned. Such an approach will boost our sustainability and sovereign capacity. So, materials needed for a sustainable future can and must not only come from mining, but also from our waste resources.

We do need more momentum, but we also need to celebrate our successes in this challenge. Collaborations between industry and our world class researchers are resulting in many breakthroughs but getting them “industrialised” is key.

A recent important breakthrough comes from the UNSW Sustainable Materials and Research (SMaRT) Centre, where carbon and hydrogen needed to make steel come from various wastes, and can actually improve the efficiency of steel making.

This represents the next generation of our home grown, patented Green Steel Polymer Injection Technology with our steel industrial partner, Molycop, which started out as the Commonwealth Steel Company over 100 years ago.

Our first 1.0 generation of Green Steel 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. This technology locks the carbon from waste resources into the steel, hence causing no emissions by creating a form of carbon capture.

Moving into the next generation of our Green Steel, our research now shows waste coffee grounds which also contain hydrogen can be used as a sustainable alternative to coking coal.

A report by environmental and social purpose not for profit business Planet Ark shows 921 cafes in Sydney city produced more than 3 000 tonnes of coffee grounds a year with 93% ending up in landfill and just 7% used for composting.

There are other technologies emerging that can reform many wastes, especially problematic wastes not subject to traditional forms of recycling, into new value-added products and manufacturing feedstock, and our various SMaRT Centre-designed MICROfactorieTM modules attest to this.

With the right will, society can find a purpose for most of our waste 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.

Many of the commodities and critical materials needed for global electrification can come from waste, and metals can be recovered and used many times over. Even many plastics can be used multiple times, or used in completely new ways, such as being reformed into plastic filaments for 3D printing to save on having to create so much original plastic.

Batteries and electronic waste items are typically recycled in smelters, however that requires long-distance transport which is expensive, causes high emissions and can create fire risks.

Micro-recycling is an innovative approach to recycling waste by reforming the waste’s  constituent materials through thermal isolation of targeted elements, like copper, nickel and cobalt.

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.