Race for zero waste

Veena was interviewed by the HIA (Housing Industry Association) for its HOUSING Magazine about some of her UNSW SMaRT Centre's industrial innovations promoting materials circularity, remanufacturing and sustainability.

Below is an excerpt from the online version of the story:

Growing up in Mumbai, India, Veena was raised with an intrinsic curiosity in the local repair and reuse economy. This interest has evolved into a life-long crusade to transform waste globally, promoting circular principles for the design, production and use of end-of-life products and materials. Rather than seeing garbage as a waste product, Veena views it as an untapped and renewable resource. 

‘What we call rubbish is just another beautiful source of materials waiting to be harnessed,’ she says. ‘This means we have to work hard at figuring out how it can be channelled into different manufacturing solutions. Of course, one is traditional recycling – converting a plastic water bottle into another plastic water bottle. Here at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre, we have expanded on that, transforming waste into completely new products.’ 

Veena and her team of 30 engineers and scientists are pushing environmentally sustainable production boundaries. 

The carbon footprint created from building and construction waste is the highest of all industries in Australia. We are responsible for 18.2 million tonnes of it each year. Adding to that, global export bans on waste have come into force, so the problem is now ours to solve.

‘People are talking about reducing their impact on the planet – builders and designers are talking about it. I’m feeling optimistic watching sustainability become mainstream and part of our daily lives. Australians are looking for opportunities – we don’t want to end up completely buried in our own waste.’ 

Veena and her team are not novices when it comes to reimaging sustainable building materials. They saw an opportunity in the steel industry which is reliant on coal. The team attempted to convert discarded tyres globally into carbon for steel production. Successfully the world’s first sustainable Green Steel technology was born, and this innovation has now been commercialised in Australia, South Korea, Thailand, the UK and Norway.

‘How Green Steel has been embraced speaks a lot about the growing awareness of not only industry but consumers,’ Veena says. ‘There has been a shift in consumer consciousness, questioning the kinds of products they use. People want environmentally sustainable products in every aspect of their lives, from food and clothing to the very foundation of their homes.’ 

The latest achievement for Veena and her team is a collaboration with developer and HIA member Mirvac, manufacturing a collection of recycled waste materials into what is called Green Ceramics. ‘What we’ve achieved and shown in partnership with Mirvac is tremendous. Having an organisation that proactively supports the manufacturing of these kinds of repurposed materials, then actively installing them in their built environments, is so brave and bold.’ 

The journey from concept to realisation has been a long but rewarding one for Veena and her team. ‘Commercialisation is never easy. We were fortunate to have funding from the NSW Government’s Physical Science Fund via the Office of NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer. This made the whole process feasible for a bunch of scientists and engineers to embark on such an adventure. It’s one of those wonderful moments – the intersection of business, government and research all working together.’

The process itself required collaboration from both the team at Mirvac and the SMaRT Centre. ‘To me, it goes to show when you all have shared values, it doesn’t matter where you work or what your job description is. It’s all about coming together and collectively making things happen. For us, it not only made good business sense and created great outcomes, but it also showed that science could solve real problems and have an impact beyond the laboratory.’