Australians believe recyclables going to landfill: research

Most Australians across all states and demographics believe the recyclables they put into their council bins are ending up in landfill, according to new research from the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The series of surveys has also found that 49 per cent of people believe that green and eco-friendly efforts will not have an effect in their lifetime, with 63.8 per cent of those older than 65 seeing no benefits being realised.

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Key findings also report that 72.4 per cent of people would recycle more of the material if it was reliably recycled.

Confusion also surround which level of government is responsible for residential waste and recycling services, with some people thinking industry instead of government is responsible for waste management.

UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Director Veena Sahajwalla said rising stockpiles and increasing use of landfill, in the absence of a coordinated government solution to a waste problem, had not been lost on consumers.

“Each council is fending for themselves right across Australia and while the meeting of federal and state environment ministers earlier this year made an important announcement about a new National Waste Policy stating that by 2025 all packaging will be re-usable, compostable or recyclable, we don’t have to wait another seven years for this decision to come into effect,” Dr Sahajwalla said.

“It is clear on this issue that people want action, and they want governments to invest and do something now.

“A number of councils and private business are interested in our technology but unless there are incentives in place, Australia will be slow to capitalise on the potential to lead the world in reforming our waste into something valuable and reusable.”

UNSW’s SMaRT Centre launched a demonstration e-waste microfactory in April, which is able to recover the components of discarded electronic items for use in high value products.

UNSW is also finalising a second demonstration microfactory, which converts glass, plastics and other waste materials into engineered stone products, which look and perform as well as marble and granite.

“Rather than export our rubbish overseas and to do more landfill for waste, the microfactory technology has the potential for us to export valuable materials and newly manufactured products instead,” Dr Sahajwalla said.

“Through the microfactory technology, we can enhance our economy and be part of the global supply chain by supplying more valuable materials around the world and stimulating manufacturing innovation in Australia.”

Consumers expect sustainable packaging from industry: research

Consumers are aware of the problems caused by packaging waste but expect the industry to provide more sustainable options, according to research launched by packaging company Pact Group.

The research has found 91 per cent of Australians are concerned about the impact of packaging, with 76 per cent more concerned about packaging waste now than they were five years ago.

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Despite this, the research has found that less than half would be willing to pay more for a product with environmentally friendly packaging.

Pact Group, Executive Chairman Raphael Geminder said that Australia’s packaging industry needs smarter packaging waste solutions, with consumer sentiment shifting and government action forthcoming.

“We can no longer simply rely on consumers to solve the problem, we need government and industry working side by side to create scaled, standardised solutions to tackle packaging waste,” Mr Geminder said.

“In order to realise this vision, we require industry-wide collaboration to simplify the recycling process for consumers.

“An integrated approach will allow us to deliver innovation at scale so new solutions do not simply increase cost and lose value. Consumers should not be forced to choose between value and sustainability,” he said.

The company has announced its own targets to meet those outlined by the Environment Minister Melissa Price last week. Pact Group aims to eliminate all non-recyclable packing, offer 30 per cent recycled material across its portfolio and provide solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle all single use secondary packaging in supermarkets by 2025.

Mr Geminder said there are tangible, incremental changes that can be made today, with longer-term changes which will require cross industry collaboration.

“I will be calling on my industry colleagues to work together with us on common platforms, agreed standards and processes that will create a framework for manufacturers, brand owners and retailers to solve problems systematically,” he said.

Image Credit: Pact Group. Pictured Raphael Geminder (L) and Melissa Price (R)

Victorian recycling research and development grants now open

Sustainability Victoria has opened applications for Research, Development and Demonstration Grants of up to $200,000 for projects that can increase the quality of recycled products sold in Victoria.

Businesses, local governments and researchers can apply for grants between $50,000 and $200,000 to help stimulate markets for products made from recovered resources.

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Projects that investigate one or more materials which have specific supply or demand side barriers which could be overcome with support from the government are encouraged to apply.

Concrete and brick, electronic waste, glass, organic material, paper and cardboard, plastics, rubber and textiles have all been identified as targeted materials for the grant.

The grants have been designed to support the industry in commercialising new products and processing approaches and to increase the end market uptake and demand for the targeted materials.

Successful applicants will have their projects matched dollar for dollar by the state government.

Previous research projects included alternative uses for glass fines and flexible plastics in construction and manufactured products, such as railway sleepers, plastics in concrete footpaths, glass in non-load bearing concrete and roof tiles made from glass waste.

Sustainability Victoria CEO Stan Krpan said the grants would increase job creation, develop quality products for end markets and increase investment in products made from recovered resources.

“Recent shifts in the current international recycling in gives Victoria greater impetus to develop local markets for the products we can recycle,” Mr Krpan said.

“It is crucial such markets are developed so the value of recovered resources is realised.

“This funding provides industry the opportunity to develop and trial new or existing products and specifications that use significant and reliable quantities of targeted materials,” he said.

The program will also inform the industry of the possible opportunities to use recovered materials in manufacturing to support using products made from recycled content.

“Recycling is an increasingly important community issue, and we are committed to maximising the opportunities to support new markets that use significant and reliable volumes of priority materials,” Mr Krpan said.

“It’s also an opportunity for universities and industry to work together to develop practical solutions to an important, and costly, community issue, which will benefit us all.

For more information about applying for the grant, click here.

Turning coffee grounds into coffee cups

Coffee grounds could be used to create biodegradable plastic coffee cups thanks to new research from Macquarie University.

The process converts the spent coffee grounds into a lactic acid which is then turned into a plastic, however the method is still being refined by researcher Dominik Kopp.

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Because 50 per cent of coffee grounds are made up of sugars, they can be converted into bio-based chemicals.

The method was inspired by a metabolic pathway that is thought to exist in an evolutionary ancient organism, which lived in hot and extremely acidic environments.

“Australians consume six billion cups of coffee every year, and the coffee grounds used to make these coffees are used only once and then discarded,” says Mr Kopp.

“In Sydney alone, over 920 cafes and coffee shops produced nearly 3,000 tonnes of waste coffee grounds every year.

“Ninety-three per cent of this waste ends up in landfill, where it produces greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.”

Mr Kopp sources the coffee grounds from one of the shops on Macquarie’s campus and took them back to the lab.

“We assembled a synthetic pathway to convert the most abundant sugar in the coffee grounds, mannose, into lactic acid,” he says.

“Lactic acid can be used in the production of biodegradable plastics, offering a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuel-derived plastics.

“You could use such plastics to make anything from plastic coffee cups to yoghurt containers to compost bags to sutures in medicine.”

His next step will be to further refine the conversion pathway and improve the yield of lactic acid.

“I think my project is one of many interesting approaches on how to use synthetic biology in a responsible manner for the development of a more sustainable and greener industry that doesn’t rely on crude oil,” says Dominik.

“The simple idea that we are converting waste into a valuable and sustainable product is extremely exciting!”

Planning for national solar panel product stewardship underway

Research for a national product stewardship program for photovoltaic systems, which include solar panels, is underway.

Research for a national product stewardship program for photovoltaic systems, which include solar panels, is underway.

Sustainability Victoria has appointed product stewardship consultant Equilibrium to analyse and assess potential options for a national product stewardship to help manage end of life products.

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Photovoltaic (PV) panels and associated products and equipment have been identified as a rapidly growing e-waste stream in the future. For the project, “PV systems” have neem defined to include panels and PV system accessories such as inverter equipment and energy storage systems.

Equilibrium has opened an online survey to gather input and information form manufacturers, installers, project developers, the energy industry, and peak bodies.

The information gathered by the survey along with other evidence gathered will support the assessment of potential options.

Organisations and individuals interested in the project can complete the survey here.

Deakin researchers could recycle jeans into joints

Advanced textile recycling methods could see denim jeans transformed into artificial cartilage for joint reconstruction.

Deakin University researchers Dr Nolene Byrne and PhD candidate Beini Zeng have discovered how to dissolve denim and turn them into an aerogel that can be used for cartilage biosculpting, water filtration and used as a separator in advanced battery technology.

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Dr Byrne said the denim recycling technique would also help contribute to the fight against textile waste.

“Textile waste is a global challenge with significant environmental implications, and we’ve been working for more than four years to address this problem with a viable textile recycling solution,” she said.

“With population growth and the development of third world countries combined with today’s rapid fashion cycles, textile waste is always increasing, leading to millions of tonnes of clothes and other textiles being burnt or dumped in landfill.”

Dr Byrne said Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials team used an “upcycling” approach to get around cost-effectiveness issues.

“One of the main drawbacks of textile recycling efforts is that any advanced technique requires the use of chemicals, which can then make the procedure less cost-effective,” she said.

“We use environmentally-friendly chemicals, and by upcycling our approach to create a more advanced material we can address the limitations affecting other less cost-effective methods.

“We are now entering pilot-scale trials and look to be at commercial scale within 3 to 5 years with industry support.”

Dr Nolene Byrne (left) and PhD candidate Beini Zeng (right)

She said the process worked because denim was made from cotton, a natural polymer comprised of cellulose.

“Cellulose is a versatile renewable material, so we can use liquid solvents on waste denim to allow it to be dissolved and regenerated into an aerogel, or a variety of different forms,” she said.

“Aerogels are a class of advanced materials with very low density, sometimes referred to as ‘frozen smoke’ or ‘solid smoke’, and because of this low density they make excellent materials for bioscaffolding, absorption or filtration.

“When we reformed the cellulose, we got something we didn’t expect – an aerogel with a unique porous structure and nanoscopic tunnels running through the sample.”

Dr Byrne said she believed the sticky nature of the denim cellulose solution was likely responsible for the unique aerogel structure that resulted, something ideally suited for use as synthetic cartilage.

“That’s exactly what cartilage looks like – you can’t 3D print that material – and now we can shape and tune the aerogel to manipulate the size and distribution of the tunnels to make the ideal shape,” she said.

Vinyl Council research new solutions to recycle PVC

A Vinyl Council of Australia research project has identified new recycling approaches in a bid to use 1.2 million square metres of PVC advertising banners sent to Australian landfills each year.

The REMAKE Project researched the challenges of recycling vinyl coated polyester woven fabrics, including the 5000 tonnes of billboard skins, grain covers, and truck tarpaulins sent to landfill each year.

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Studies were launched into cost effective techniques to create end products and markets for the recycled material. These studies found a number of possible options, from bags, safety floor mats, garden containers and roof tiles.

Three of these designs are being assessed for commercial viability following prototyping.

The project has encouraged industry and government to invest more than $300,000 into PVC recycling. According to the Vinyl Council of Australia, finding a solution to recycling outdoor media is important as the cost of sending billboard skins to landfill is around $200,000 per year.

Commenting on the REMAKE project, Vinyl Council Chief Executive Sophi MacMillan said that more work is needed to find a long-term, market-based, viable solution.

“The durability, weatherability and flexibility of these materials make them an excellent choice for many applications, yet they have been previously difficult to recycle. As a priority recycling area, this project has shown great potential for recovering these resources for use in new products,” Ms MacMillan said.

“Further encouragement by government and the community of circular economy programs like ours would lift recycling rates, support reprocessing of complex products as well as generate jobs and promote innovation. This would lead to a step change in diverting difficult, but quality products from landfill and a move towards greater sustainability,” she said.

“While there is still more work to do, if we find a viable reprocessing technology and end product solution, then this has the potential to be replicated overseas.”