Micro Factories are the Future of Recycling

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Scientist and Professor Veena Sahajwalla is a recycling innovator with some bold new ideas about how to save waste from landfill. She proposes businesses tackling their own waste through micro factories. Her and her team at the UNSW SMaRT Centre have trialled a micro factory that combines textile and glass waste to produce ‘green ceramics’ – a durable building material.

The UNSW SMaRT Centre’s whole idea is to think about producing materials by using waste and end‐of‐life products as raw materials and the concept of green manufacturing as value-adding.

In ABC’s Australian Story episode Recycling revolutionary shows how you can turn old clothes into kitchen tiles that features Veena and her journey towards micro factories, she states “we can no longer assume that we’ll pack it {waste} off and send it somewhere overseas and it then becomes somebody else’s problem…to put it quite bluntly, we’re going to have to take responsibility for our own stuff.”

Australia’s waste has an abundance of opportunity and untapped resources, to discard these valuable materials to landfill is both unsustainable and unintelligent. Waste is not only an environmental problem, but also an economic loss.

Veena is best known for her partnership with OneSteel, developing a process to make green alloys, using end‐of‐life rubber tyres and waste plastic as an alternative to coking coal. Over two million passenger vehicle tyres have been diverted from landfill in Australia, and the technology has now been commercialised here and overseas in countries including South Korea, Thailand, the UK and Norway.

She has adopted this methodology of using waste as a resource to explore further material up-cycling. This new material, ‘green ceramics’ connects the materials from old clothes with glass and creates a product the building industry can use.

In a collaboration with Mirvac these green ceramics were use in a range of commercial products from a kitchen spalshback to a dining room table to a coffee table.

Other waste streams that can be used to create these ceramic, include waste wood and plastics. Essentially, these green ceramics are a new generation of high performance, non-toxic, engineered bio-composites, for use in buildings, as furniture and for various architectural and decorative applications.

The collaboration demonstrated the flexibility and durability of the recycled material, however as Veena noted, “will it work outside the lab?”

Veena’s goal was to show how these products that have been developed in labs over many years can have real impact in our community and solve real waste problems, however often great ideas struggle to make it into the marketplace.

The idea is take businesses on their own journey where they can reimagine themselves as manufactures and recycle their own materials to create new products through on site micro factories.

Andrew, owner of a mattress and tyre recycling business in Cootamundra, NSW was the first business to pilot a micro factory on site at his recycling centre.

Her innovative thinking changed using waste to recycle into using waste as a resource. However there needs to be a demand for circular products in order for micro factories to make a change.

“When people are going out and asking for resources and materials that come from waste, that’s when we are at the cusp of change. When we are all inspiring each-other to do things better.”

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