A recycling revolution

Eureka Prize

Shoalhaven City Council and the engineer behind MICROfactories are thinking big when it comes to the future of recycling.

Recycling needs to deliver an outcome for University of New South Wales SMaRT Centre Director, Professor Veena Sahajwalla.

The newly crowned 2022 NSW Australian of the Year, widely known as the “waste queen” to colleagues, has been reshaping the way waste is managed for decades. Now she hopes her work will help transform communities.

“Recycling is not the end game, it’s only the beginning,” Veena says. “We should be saying ‘is there a better way of doing things?’ To me, the better way has to be for the purpose of humanity. We have to deliver good outcomes for people and for jobs and not just see waste as a problem that has to go away.

“I always make the point there’s no magic fairy out there. Businesses should see recycling as an opportunity; they’re going to generate something that can be utilised and offer a regional solution.

“I like to think our solutions bring in a little bit more equity about employment. That’s what’s important to me.”

Having lived the early part of her childhood in Mumbai, Veena says she knew very quickly that “being wasteful is not okay”.

She says it was in her DNA to look at waste from an environmental aspect. Over the years she recognised waste streams that can be harvested and brought back to life in a whole new form.

Twenty years ago, Veena invented polymer injection technology known as ‘green steel’, an eco-friendly process for using waste tyres in steel production.

In 2018, the world’s first MICROfactorie, which can transform the components from e-waste items such as discarded smart phones and laptops into valuable materials for re-use, was launched at the UNSW’s Sustainable Materials & Technology Centre (SMaRT Centre) headed up by Veena.

The factory was the first of a series of MICROfactories under development to turn a variety of waste streams such as glass, plastic and timber into commercial materials and products.

The modular factories are designed to operate on a site as small as 50 square metres and be located wherever waste may be stockpiled.

In November 2021, Shoalhaven City Council received a $500,000 grant from the Environment Trust to build a $1 million MICROfactorie at the West Nowra Waste and Recycling Depot, in partnership with the SMaRT Centre. Almost 450 tonnes of glass and mattresses a year will be remanufactured into green ceramics including benchtops and tabletops.

“Shoalhaven will be the first council in the country that will take on a MICROfactorie and have it up and running,” Veena says. “It is really breaking that barrier where a lot of councils think they’re just service providers, collecting waste and sending it to someone else to process.

“If anything, councils being at the front face, are sitting at what will become a gold mine if you think about some of the undervalued resources. They don’t just collect glass and e-waste, they collect so many different waste products.”

Professor Veena Sahajwalla and Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley at Shoalhaven.
Professor Veena Sahajwalla and Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley at Shoalhaven.

Peter Windley, Shoalhaven City Council Waste Co-ordinator, says that the new recycling facility will remanufacture 14 tonnes of plastics into various products such as filament for 3D printing and almost 450 tonnes of glass and textiles per year into tiles and other forms of furnishings.

“Products like tiles, kitchen benches and tabletops will be available to be purchased and used in homes. The products are tested by the CSIRO and are a very high quality. They will be available to not only people in Shoalhaven but everyone in Australia,” Peter says.

“The project is considered ground-breaking because it solves an issue with previously unrecyclable broken and dirty glass fragments. Whilst there are other glass processing facilities in Australia, this new facility uses a unique washing process.

“We hope in the near future, to accept plastics, glass and mattresses from other areas of Australia, which will help to reduce waste materials ending up in landfill.”

The MICROfactorie is one of five projects being undertaken as part of an integrated approach to waste at West Nowra Waste and Recycling Depot. Peter says the precinct will be home to what is believed to be the most modern Materials Recovery Facility in Australia.

He says a council glass recycling facility is already processing 6500 tonnes of glass for road surfacing and the MICROfactorie was a “natural progression”.

“Green ceramics are all about glass product, where better to build a MICROfactorie than next door to a glass recycling facility?” he says.

“It’s part of what our core vision is, to try and find sustainable output streams and resource recovery opportunities to explore.

“There is more opportunity than ever in resource recovery at the moment, we just have to take it with both hands.”

Shoalhaven City Council has been lauded for leading the way in waste management, winning two awards in the 2021 NSW Local Government Excellence in the Environment Awards.

Council was an overall winner in the Water Management category for its Reclaimed Water Management Scheme Stage 1B and overall winner in the Transition to Circular Economy category for its glass recycling facility.

In June 2021, the council took top prize in the NSW Local Government Excellence Awards for its disaster recovery and emergency response management following the devastating 2019-20 bushfires. The council established a recycling plant that successfully recovered and diverted from landfill 96 per cent of 18,600 tonnes of bushfire demolition waste.

Peter says Shoalhaven’s ground-breaking work in the waste sector is driven by “strong leadership” and a “passionate community”.

“We’ve got a ‘go get-em’ attitude within our team, a great executive management team and elected council and a really supportive community,” he says. “Veena and her team fit well with us. We are looking for ways to be sustainable and build things for the community.

“One of the leading factors in everything we do is sustainable – environmentally and economically. With that comes employment.”

Veena says she is “blown away” by the passion of people at Shoalhaven who, she says, realise the “time of talking is over and the time of doing
is here”.

“We know doing things locally, in our own backyard, is the best way to inspire others,” she says. “If we all start to look at Shoalhaven, at what they’re doing as a local council, who’s to say others won’t look to do the same? We’ve already had some interest from other councils.

“People are not seeing waste as someone else’s responsibility. They can see that drawing the connectivity between waste, waste recycling, manufacturing and carbon emissions is going to be important.

“It’s nice that moment has arrived and I can feel it’s great to be part of that journey.”

In November, Veena’s work to revolutionise recycling science was recognised when she was named the 2022 NSW Australian of the Year.

“This means so much to me and is a reflection on the wonderful people I’ve had around me,” she says.

“Promoting STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] and greater sustainability continue to be extremely important to me. As I engage with many people every day, I see these issues are generating a groundswell that we should embrace to help our society collectively tackle the challenges we face, to improve our environmental, social and economic wellbeing.”

The new facility at Shoalhaven is expected to be completed by late 2022.

Send this to a friend