Sustainability column in SMH

In this opinion editorial column published by the Sydney Morning Herald, and presented to the SMH Sustainability Summit, Veena talks about using waste as a resource to help deliver the power and materials needed for a sustainable future.

Read the full story on the SMH website, and see the SMH 2021 Sustainability Summit website.

Here is an excerpt:

There’s something easy we can all do to protect the earth

World leaders have spent almost two weeks working out how to combat climate change, but as COP26 draws to a close today, one key issue is yet to be addressed: turning waste into a resource. And this is something all of us can tackle.

Electric vehicles and electrification powered by renewable energy will play a crucial role in reducing emissions, but the infrastructure they require is made from materials we dig out of the earth. These materials are finite and increasing in cost.

Growing demand for electric vehicles, solar systems and batteries to run our devices puts pressure on these resources.

Recovering critical and valuable materials from waste will ease this pressure; we must better manage the resources we have already mined.

At the UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre, we have already shown we can reform materials embedded in various waste batteries, such as cobalt and nickel. And e-waste materials that contain copper, manganese, zinc, and various rare earth elements can also be recycled and reformed with technologies developed or being developed by the SMaRT Centre.

Recycling e-waste not only helps us be more sustainable. In this COVID-19 era, when global supply chains are constrained, waste materials can also strengthen our sovereign manufacturing capability as well.

In just five years, the volume of discarded smartphones, laptops, printers and other electronic devices has jumped 21 per cent worldwide. This e-waste reached a record 53.6 million metric tonnes in 2019, an average of 7.3 kilograms per person, and has become the fastest-growing domestic waste stream, according to the United Nation’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report.

The report predicts global e-waste will reach a staggering 74 million metric tonnes by 2030, with most of it ending up in landfill, stockpiles and even in incinerators. Just 17.4 per cent of e-waste in 2019 was collected and recycled. The amount of e-waste we produce could soon easily rival plastics.

We need a change of mindset that values our materials and challenges our throw-away mentality. It is good to see that new government policies list protecting rare earths (such as neodymium, found in computer hard drives) as a national priority and that there is a renewed focus across all levels of government to better manage our waste, recycling and manufacturing resources.

But a recent report from Infrastructure Australia found recyclable waste is ending up in landfill because of constraints on its collection and processing, including product design and lack of demand. That report highlights the urgent need for new waste and recycling infrastructure.

The new Australian Research Council Microrecycling Research Hub that I am heading aims to address this need. Enabling onshore, sophisticated waste processing, recycling and reformation of waste as a resource must be central to global electrification and is integral to Australia’s prosperity.