Monash Uni launches research hub to transform biowaste

A new research hub is focused on transforming organic waste into marketable chemicals that can be used for a variety of uses, from medicinal gels to food packaging.

Monash University has launched the Australian Research Council (ARC) Hub for Processing Advance Lignocelluosics into Advanced Materials.

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A total of $6.8 million over five years will be invested into converting biomass and plant-based matter into materials such as cellulose-based hydrogels for personal medicine, nanocellulose films to replace food packaging and nanogels to help farmers maintain their crops.

An industry consortium composed of Visy, Amcor, Circa, Leaf, Orora, and Norske Skog will join Monash, the University of Tasmania, the University of South Australia, the Tasmanian Government and AgroParis Tech as part of the ARC hub.

The research could significantly impact pulp and paper companies, turning them into potential bio-refineries.

Three objectives have been specified to achieve this industry transformation, which involve deriving green chemicals from Australian wood and lignocellulosic streams, engineering new nanocellulose applications and developing ultralight paper and novel packaging. Potential packaging could have significantly improved physical properties, such as including radio-frequency identification technology to integrate with transport or retail systems.

Bioresource Processing Research Institute of Australia Director Gil Garnier said the research will help the Australian pulp, paper and forestry industry transform their production waste into high-grade goods.

“This hub will leverage world-leading Australian and international research capabilities in chemistry, materials science and engineering with the express aim of creating new materials, companies and jobs for our growing bioeconomy,” Prof Garnier said.

“With ongoing support and vision from our government, industry and university partners, we will identify new applications and products derived from biowaste to transform the pharmaceutical, chemicals, plastics and food packaging industries in Australia and across the world.

“In fact, one of the goals is for our industry partners to generate, within four to 10 years, 25-50 per cent of their profits from products that don’t exist today,” he said.

Funding announced for $700,000 Litter Innovation Fund applicants

Successful applicants for Round 2 of Sustainability Victoria’s $700,000 Litter Innovation Fund have been announced, including councils, businesses and not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises.

Grants were offered in two rounds and provided up to $20,000 for innovative solutions to litter and illegal dumping that are delivered through a partnership.

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The package comprises of two funding streams, projects in the Yarra River and Port Philip Bay catchment and projects outside of these areas.

Successful applicants include Southern Cross Recycling Group, in partnership with the City of Whittlesea and Maribyrnong, for the Mobile Community Resource Recovery Hub, a purpose-built trailer that provides a collection point for small household items and clothing.

Monash City Council in partnership with Monash University have also been grated funding to assist the culturally and linguistically diverse student education project to reduce illegally dumped waste.

Boroondara, Nillumbik and Yarra City Councils have partnered with Connectsus to fund the Binasys project, which will install ultrasonic level sensor technology to provide a live demand profile of each public litter bin.

In an effort to tackle construction litter, Wydnham City Council, Wolfdene Property Development Group, Point Cook Open Spaces and Beach Patrol will use the funding to liaison with developers, builders and tradies using a pledge system.

EPA Victoria and VicRoads will assist the Macedon Ranges Shire Council to install infrastructure at identified hotspots to increase enforcement and behaviour change and reduce illegal dumping through education campaigns.

A roadside litter campaign will also be launched addressing litter from vehicles along major transport routes due to the funding provided to the Grampians Central West Waste and Resource Recovery Group, VicRoads and local government authorities.

ECU to phase out single-use plastics

Edith Cowan University (ECU) will begin phasing out single-use plastic water bottles and straws across all of its campuses from the start of semester two.

It follows initiatives on the east coast from the Universities of Canberra, Melbourne, Sunshine Coast and Monash University.

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ECU said it believes it is the first Western Australian University to limit the use of plastic water bottles on campus.

The phase out will be done as part of a staged approach to restrict single-use plastic water bottles. Beginning with around 40 events it holds on its campuses, ECU will instead provide water refill stations.

The university is also investigating solutions including an increase to the number of water fountains on campus, offering free or discounted multi-use water bottles on campus and discussing with commercial tenants for alternatives to single-use bottles.

ECU Vice-Chancellor Professor Steve Chapman said it was a big step forward for the University.

“With around 30,000 students and 1800 staff, we can make a huge difference by taking this first step to limit single-use plastic water bottles at our campus events,” Professor Chapman said.

“It’s also financially responsible. More than 90 per cent of the cost of bottled water can be traced back to the bottle, lid and label.

“This is not a ban. This is about education and providing alternatives. By offering high quality, convenient options to students, staff and visitors, we are confident we can reduce the demand for single-use plastic water bottles on our campuses.

Monash Uni helping farmers profit from food waste

Research has begun on helping farmers transform their food waste into profit while improving their business model thanks to a joint effort from Monash University’s School of Chemistry, IITB (India), the Food Innovation Centre and the agriculture industry.

Monash University is using a holistic approach to ‘biomass valorisation’ to help the industry extract high value components such as antioxidants, oils, pectin and protein from food disposal. Mangoes, pomegranate and pineapple skin, spent coffee grounds and almond ash.

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The food waste also extends to fresh produce that is disposed for not meeting the cosmetic standards of supermarkets.

Professor Tony Patti said the biomass valorisation looks at the entire fruit or vegetable, not just what is eaten, which is what currently provides value to the grower.

“The skins, seeds, kernels, leaves and off-cuts were seen as ‘waste’, adding to their disposal costs. These by-products are not waste, but a potential valuable resource, providing several components, identified as being of high market value,” Dr Patti said.

“Monash is working with Australian growers and businesses to diversify the potential market opportunities, including expansion into the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and pet food industries.

“Using this research, food and agricultural companies can tackle costly waste challenges, improve their environmental footprint and create a sustainable business that takes full advantage of growing demand in domestic and export markets for high quality food products,” he said.

Experts react to single-use plastic ban

Plastic bottles dumped

A senate inquiry into Australia’s recycling industry has recommended that all single-use plastics should be banned by 2023.

The decision could potentially include products like takeaway coffee cups, chip packets and takeaway containers.

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Professor Sankar Bhattacharya from Monash University’s Department of Chemical Engineering said time is of the essence to find a new home for recyclate stockpiles.

“Now that China has stopped taking our trash, we’re scrambling to figure out how to keep all those good intentions out of the landfill,” he said.

“The majority of the plastics we use in our daily life – different grades of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene and even polyvinyl chloride, to some extent – can be processed into liquid fuel.

“That’s what China was doing with the plastic recyclables it bought from us. They’re now realising that their domestic production of waste products is so large that they cannot process any more by bringing in waste plastics from other countries,” he said.

Katherine Gaschk, a Research Masters from Murdoch University said she was pleased with the Senate inquiry’s findings.

“The sooner we accept the need to stop using plastics and change from our current mode as a throw-away society, the better for the future health of our planet,” she said.

“Ultimately it is human behaviour that is responsible for plastic pollution. Removing the plastics will certainly help to reduce pollution, but there is also a need to educate retailers, consumers and manufacturers about the impacts of plastic pollution and how we can reduce our dependence on plastics.”

Simon Lockrey, a Research Fellow from RMIT University’s School of Design warns that while the ban would be great in theory, there may be rebound effects.

“For instance in food systems, packaging can save food waste in the supply chain, from farm to plate,” he said.

“Without acknowledging other changes to that system when taking away single-use packaging, we may move the waste burden, sometimes to more impactful levels. For example, packaging can be a low impact compared to food waste impacts.

“Therefore, it would be good with this senate initiative to see the complimentary strategies for industries using single-use packaging to make sure we are in a waste reduction winner all around,” Mr Lockrey said.

Thavamani Palanisami, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Newcastle’s Global Centre for Environmental Remediation said what should be the next step.

“Tags such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘bio-based’, ‘100 per cent degradable’ need to be regulated,” he said.

“We need to create public awareness about types of plastic and their individual behaviour.

“We need to set standard testing methods to verify the biodegradability of the plastic items tagged as ‘biodegradable’,” Dr Palanisami said.

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