Read the latest news from the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology
On 24 June 2023, UNSW SMaRT Centre Director, Professor Veena, will speak at the 2023 Vogue Codes Summit.
This year's theme, Change for Good, will delve into the future of technology and its impact on society, including environmental innovations, space exploration, the change makers of regional Australia and innovation in media and ecommerce.
Below is an excerpt of a story published by Vogue on Veena and SMaRT:
Most people see waste for exactly what it is—a material no longer of use, warranting not a second thought after its disposal. But Professor Veena Sahajwalla doesn’t see the world like most people. “Who says that waste is a dirty word? Waste is not a dirty word. It's a resource, it's a valuable resource, and we just haven't given it the respect that it deserves.”
A respect for waste isn’t something in abundance in a society enamoured with novelty. The linear trajectory of a product’s life span—that is, its creation, followed by its use, then its disposal—has become so dominant that the circular approach of years gone by, where repairing trumped replacing, has faded into oblivion. But for Professor Sahajwalla, a panelist at this year's Vogue Codes Summit presented by Optus, the potential of waste is the very thing that drives her.
“I love the challenges of unmaking and then remaking,” she muses. “I was always wanting to find a way to fix things.” An unwavering desire to “challenge every little thing around me” saw Sahajwalla develop an interest in recycling, having noticed how many products are discarded without a consideration for the potential applications of their composite parts. “The challenge associated with waste and recycling was recognising that it's not easy,” she reflects. “So I had to start out by defining the challenge itself.” Working with her team at the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research & Technology at UNSW—of which Sahajwalla is the director—they coined this challenge ‘microrecycling science’, subsequently developing the world’s first e-waste microfactory and plastics microfactory.
Image credit: Anna Kucera. Professor Veena Sahajwalla in her e-waste microfactory.
It’s in these microfactories that Sahajwalla and her team take various forms of waste, from glass to e-waste from electronic devices, and break the materials down into their constituent parts to understand how these elements react with one another on a micro-scale. Once the properties of these materials are understood, they can then be repurposed into new products. Take the creation of green steel—a technological innovation Sahajwalla developed—for instance. Harnessing the 86 per cent of disposed rubber tyres that will never be recycled, Sahajwalla pioneered a process of melting down these carbon-rich tyres to extract the coke, which can then be used to replace non-renewable coke in the production of steel.
“To be able to pioneer any innovative solution, you do need first and foremost that creative thinking when it comes to science and technology,” Sahajwalla says. “If you're not thinking differently, then you're not actually coming up with new and innovative solutions. You need to do more than just tweak at the edges, especially with some of these complex challenges.” This inherently creative approach to her work may be something Sahajwalla has honed over her years as a scientist and engineer, but the seeds were planted at an early age.
Image credit: Anna Kucera. Professor Veena Sahajwalla working with electronic waste in her e-waste microfactory.
“When I was born in Mumbai, for reasons like necessity and not having that luxury of going and getting something new, you were taught that you had to find ways to use things as long as you could,” she reflects. Such an approach is largely absent from Western society, where a preference for the convenience of the make-use-discard model has seen environmental degradation accelerate ten-fold in recent decades. “The principle of valuing materials is actually so important, because we put a lot of energy into making those materials in the first place,” Sahajwalla says. “Here, we're writing things off too quickly. Just because the macro product doesn't work, it doesn't mean that the materials that went into making it in the first place are no longer useful.”
For an individual as accomplished as Sahajwalla—along with inventing green steel, she is also pioneering a new generation of green materials and products derived from waste, and has a slew of awards to her name—you would think the enthusiasm for the (mammoth) task at hand would wane slightly. But speaking to her, it’s impossible to miss her unwavering dedication to the cause that has the potential to completely revolutionise recycling as the world knows it.
“As a human being, sometimes when something gets inside you, you don't want to give up,” Sahajwalla reflects. It’s this refusal to accept the status quo and a desire to push boundaries in spite of setbacks that are the cornerstones of Sahajwalla’s work—that, and her steadfast tenacity. “We owe it to the planet that we're not going to just see waste as a problem, but rather see it as an opportunity to go down the path of unmaking a complex waste. The unmaking part is not easy, but I love the challenge.”
Professor Veena Sahajwalla will be speaking at this year's Vogue Codes Summit at Sydney's Carriageworks on June 24.