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More than 50% of e-waste is going to landfill and the remainder is usually stockpiled/shipped overseas due to limited innovation and commercialisation of effective technologies in Australia. The ARC Industry Laureate Fellowship for Green Metals is a program developing novel approaches to use electronic and solar PV waste as a resource – enabling the recovery of valuable metal alloys, rare earth elements and other critical materials which have high market values.
This approach will provide the foundation for recovery of high value materials to boost supply networks for local manufacturing, and open export market opportunities for technology and recovered materials, building on SMaRT's existing Green Metals research. Through licensing of IP and partnership with key industry partner Renew IT and other industry and council participants, this research fellowship program will enable the development of scalable, locally deployable facilities to local councils and businesses for waste reduction and recycling, and advanced manufacturing capability.
The development of decentralised solutions that can be implemented locally anywhere in Australia where waste is collected, will thereby deliver significant environmental and economic benefits for Australia.
Australia’s waste and resource recovery industry is being increasingly challenged by complex e-waste. Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest waste estimate figures show the Australian economy domestically generated 539,000 tonnes of e-waste in 2019, with more than 50% going to landfill and only 17.4% being claimed as recycled but much of this goes offshore where outcomes are unknown, yet it is classified as ‘recycled’.
Current Australian traditional recycling facilities are limited to pre-processing or partial mechanical processing which can separate, dismantle or shred only. There are limited decentralised technologies for the effective isolation of the valuable metal alloys, REEs (rare earth elements) and critical metals contained in e-waste. Many of the materials needed for future electrification components are subject to supply and price constraints and we are landfilling waste containing many of these valuable materials needed. Australian Government Implementation of the National Waste Policy Action Plan, announced on 12 September 2022, presents seven national targets to guide investment and national efforts to avoid waste and improve resource recovery to 2030 and targeted 80% average resource recovery rate from all waste streams.
This project is a tangible step towards achieving those targets and it not only directly addresses a number of the current key national priorities, but aims to create ESG (environmental, social and governance) benefits and generate significant economic opportunities, with all partners committed to shared outcomes, principles and values around sustainability and ethical practices. The project’s Key Industry Partner, Renew IT, a repurposer of old IT equipment, has long had an ambition to address these essential metals in waste and over its many years of partnership with the UNSW SMaRT Centre is now able to realise this ambition via this Industry Laureate Fellowship
The project’s other partners with SMaRT are pioneering research and development to recover Green Metals from e-waste and photo voltaic (PV) waste that will be commercialised via decentralised MICROfactoriesTM. The recovered metals, alloys, rare earth elements (REEs) and other compounds will become feedstock to help build the components to achieve our future electrification needs. Other partners include SMEs and a local council, who are owners of the e-waste and PV waste and buyers of the Green Metals to be recovered.
While Green Ceramics and Plastics MICROfactorieTM technologies have and are being commercialised, the capability for Green Metals recovered from e-waste and PV waste has not yet been tested in an industrial setting for commercial application. This fellowship program is doing that.
An Access Economics report for the Australian Department of Environment estimates that for every 10,000 tonnes of waste recycled, 9.2 full-time equivalent positions are created, in contrast to 2.8 if the same waste was destined for landfill, not to mention the significant environmental and social benefits of high-tech recycling.