CSIRO and Microsoft partner to tackle plastic waste

Artificial intelligence (AI) and other digital technologies will be harnessed to tackle global challenges including plastic waste and illegal fishing, as part of a new partnership between CSIRO and Microsoft.

The agreement, signed by CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall and Microsoft Australia Managing Director Steven Worrall, is designed to accelerate critical research that will use AI and machine learning.

“By partnering with a world-leading scientific organisation like CSIRO, we believe we will be able to bring deep and lasting impact to Australian organisations, communities and the environment by accelerating progress in critically important areas such as managing plastic waste,” Worrall said.

Marine debris will be targeted by analysing videos of rivers and stormwater drains to identify and track waste flows into waterways.

According to a CSIRO statement, the research will be used to inform intervention efforts, such as placement of river rubbish traps and reverse vending machines where the public can recycle bottles and cans in return for a fee.

The partnership will also work towards tackling illegal fishing by analysing information gathered from high resolution cameras and underwater microphones, to assist fishing management in Australian marine reserves like the Great Barrier Reef.

Additionally, CSIRO and Microsoft will equip farmers with custom, digital insights from a diverse range of data sources, including sensors, satellites and deep domain knowledge integrated with analytics and modelling.

This will be used to provide insights on tactical and strategic decision making including soil condition, crop growth and farm management.

“The partnership will also contribute towards CSIRO’s managed data ecosystem and digital academy, projects that are transforming CSIRO’s digital landscape with new technologies, data capabilities and skill sets, and bring Microsoft’s latest digital technology to CSIRO’s wide portfolio of research,” the CSIRO statement reads.

Marshall said the partnership brings decades of scientific expertise in solving real-world challenges together with the latest breakthroughs in AI.

“This partnership is turning science and technology into real-world solutions for real people, from the Great Barrier Reef, to suburban waterways, to farms and environments around the country,” he said.

“Everything CSIRO does is through partnerships across Australia and around the world, so it’s great to share such a broad vision for making the world a better place with a visionary partner like Microsoft.”

Worrall added that Microsoft’s research and investments in data-driven tools such as cloud and AI are designed to tackle global challenges.

“We’re pleased to be forging a deep strategic partnership with CSIRO as part of Microsoft’s mission to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more,” he said.

“This partnership also aligns with Microsoft’s sustainability commitments and pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030, carbon negative by 2050.”

The partnership follows previous initiatives like the Healthy Country Partnership, announced in November, which combines responsible AI and modern science with Indigenous knowledge to solve complex environmental management problems.

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Study highlights greater pollution than previously estimated

Plastic waste in the ocean is making its way back to land and increasing pollution on Australia’s beaches, according to new research from CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency.

According to a CSIRO statement, the research explains why estimates of waste entering the ocean each year are 100 times larger than the amount of plastic observed floating on the surface, and suggests waste management strategies on land need to accommodate larger volumes of pollution than previously estimated.

“These findings highlight the importance of including the entire width of coastal areas in studies to understand how much – and where – debris gets trapped,” the statement reads.

“This is critical for developing targeted waste management policies, particularly in areas with large regional populations, to reduce litter ending up in our oceans and along our coasts.”

CSIRO Principal Research Scientist Denise Hardesty said researchers collected data on the amount and location of plastic pollution every 100 kilometres around the entire coast of Australia between 2011 and 2016.

“The highest concentrations of marine debris were found along the coastal backshores, where the vegetation begins,” Dr Hardesty said.

Utrecht University’s Arianna Olivelli, who led the analysis, said findings indicate that coasts are a major sink for marine debris, particularly for larger debris items.

“The debris recorded along the coasts was found to be a mix of littering and deposition from the ocean,” she said.

“The results suggest that plastic is moving from urban areas into the ocean, and then being transported back onshore and pushed onto land, where it remains.”

Ms Olivelli said onshore wind and waves, together with more densely populated areas, influences the amount and distribution of marine debris.

“The further back we went from the water’s edge, the more debris we found,” she said.

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Co-locating trust: social licence and WtE

Waste Management Review examines the implications of the social licence to operate in the emerging Australian waste-to-energy market.

In November 2019, Craigieburn residents on Melbourne’s urban fringe called on Hume City Council to reject a proposed waste-to-energy (WtE) facility in the suburb. The calls came amid concerns the plant would produce hazardous emissions, causing air pollution.

Katherine Lawford, No Toxic Incinerator for Hume spokesperson, said the community was upset, citing concerns the plant would lead to large volumes of waste transported into Melbourne for incineration.

The group was also apprehensive, Ms Lawford said, that the plant would undermine recycling efforts and encourage wastefulness. At the time of writing, there was no publicly accessible information on whether the proposed facility would use incineration or gasification technology.

While the Craigieburn facility’s fate is uncertain, No Toxic Incinerator for Hume’s concerns are not novel, with similar protests occurring across the country. Negative public reactions to WtE therefore foreground issues of residential encroachment, misunderstood technology and social licence to operate (SLO).

SLO, which evolved from broader concepts of corporate responsibility, centres on the idea that a business needs not only appropriate government or regulatory approval, but also a “social licence”. First used by Jim Cooney, an executive of international mining company Placer Dome, at a 1997 World Bank Meeting, SLO grew rapidly in use and pervasiveness. The term is now commonplace across a wide range of sectors including resources, farming, forestry and waste.

The Next Generation’s (TNG) failed 2018 WtE proposal, lodged by Dial A Dump Industries’ Ian Malouf, worked to gain SLO, but in the end, what went wrong is a matter that cannot be conclusively defined. The proposal, which sought to build and operate a large-scale combustion facility in Eastern Creek, Western Sydney, led to widespread public protest.

The proposal placed the facility strategically close to the NSW power grid, with Mr Malouf offering to supplement free power for 1000 homes.

As reported by Waste Management Review in 2018, TNG also conducted multiple presentations to council and officers, two public exhibitions, 8000 DVDs and pamphlet drops delivered door to door, and online, radio, news and television promotion during consultation.

It’s worth noting that the plant was to be co-located with the Genesis Xero Waste Recycling Facility, meaning residents were potentially already accustomed to living near waste and resource recovery operations. The idea of co-location is highlighted by CSIRO’s Engaging Communities on Waste Project as a useful mechanism to drive greater community acceptance.

In spite of these factors, protest persisted, with Mr Malouf’s application referred to the NSW Independent Planning Commission for determination in April 2018, following 949 public objections. The commission rejected the proposal in July, citing, among other objections, that the project was not in the public interest.

CHANGING ATTITUDES 

According to Sustainability Victoria’s 2018 Resource Recovery Technology Guide, waste and resource recovery facilities represent some of the most contentious land uses operating in Australia today.

For waste and resource recovery planning in Victoria, communities must therefore be involved in determining waste and resource recovery priorities and have opportunities to participate in decision-making and long-term planning.

“Stakeholders have different contributions to make and different involvement needs at each stage of the decision-making process,” the guide suggests.

“At different stages, involvement may take the form of sharing information, consulting, entering into dialogue with certain parties or providing opportunity for stakeholders to deliberate on decisions.”

According to Mark Smith, Victorian Waste Management Association Executive Officer, contention around waste facility land use stems from a lack of understanding of the role waste management plays in society and the technologies employed.

“While working with Sustainability Victoria in 2016, I was involved in social research with CSIRO that looked at community attitudes and perceptions about the sector. After surveying 1212 Victorians, we found that there are a number of factors that can build or improve SLO, including better community understanding of how the sector contributes to Victoria’s lifestyle and economy, and also governance (controls and oversight) arrangements by regulators.”

Government often views SLO, Mark says, as something an individual site or operator needs to secure. He would argue, however, that SLO exists on two levels  – the industry as a whole and individual sites – with both occupying a shared space with government.

“I’d also argue that government does not clearly understand its role in building public confidence in the sector,” he adds.

Mark says that with recent developments such as the export ban, the waste sector will require significant infrastructure upgrades and expansion.

“This expansion can’t and won’t happen if the private sector, who own and operate the bulk of assets in Australia, continue to encounter barriers to investment, such as communities slowing down development,” he says.

“We do occupy a shared space with government, so I think it’s important for government to reflect on their role and responsibility in building SLO and educating the public, especially around WtE.”

Similar concerns are referenced in Victoria’s Waste Education Strategy report, released in 2016. In the report, Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio suggests that despite investment in waste education, success in addressing critical long-term issues has been inconsistent across state and local government, industry, schools, community organisations and third-party providers.

To address this, and facilitate greater instances of SLO, the strategy proposes increasing the Victorian community’s perception of waste management as an essential service.

As part of this strategic direction, Ms D’Ambrosio said the state government would work with the waste industry to help them engage local communities and encourage best practice approaches to community engagement.

CSIRO’s latest research, an update on Mark’s aforementioned 2016 project, also formed part of this strategy.

The 2019 project, titled Changes and perceiptions in Victorian attitudes and perceptions of the waste and resource recovery sector, surveyed 1244 Victorians living in metropolitan and regional Victoria. Respondents were asked for their views on living near WtE facilities, as well as waste and resource recovery complexes – including possible impacts, benefits and trust.

CSRIO identified eight key factors that drive social acceptance in the waste sphere, which were fairness and equity, governance, quality of relationships, trust in the sector, impacts to wellbeing, benefits of wellbeing, attitudes about waste and knowledge.

Andrea Walton, CSIRO Resources and Communities Team Leader, says urban growth, particularly in outer suburbs surrounding waste sites that previously had a significant buffer, bring local communities and waste sites into closer proximity.

“Population growth puts more pressure on the waste management system through the generation of increased waste volumes. Effective forward planning of waste management has become an expectation of citizens, partly because they view waste management as an essential service,” Andrea says.

“This type of planning builds trust in the sector and contributes to people’s social acceptance of the need for different types of activities and infrastructure to manage our waste.”

SLO has therefore become more pertinent, Andrea says, forming a basis for the approval of new sites, new technologies and the ongoing operation of existing sites.

When asked why CSIRO chose to include WtE in its updated research – WtE was excluded in the initial 2016 report – Andrea says while WtE is not a new technology globally, it is new to Australia.

As such, CSIRO thought it important to understand what Australians thought about WtE and what underpinned those attitudes. CSIRO found that overall, acceptance of living near a WtE facility was low, but significantly higher than acceptance of living near a waste and resource recovery complex that included landfill.

“People support the avoidance of waste and see landfill as the least preferred option for managing waste material. Negative views about living near a landfill mean relatively higher support for WtE. It’s important to note however that support for living near a WtE facility was still modest,” she says.

Perceptions of impacts were also lower for WtE than for a waste complex, with societal benefits assessed more favourably. Moreover, residents viewed WtE as potentially fairer when considered on a broader societal level, provided the burden to local communities was offset by benefits, such as local councils being paid accordingly.   

According to Andrea, a key challenge to achieving SLO is public access to information. CSRIO’s research shows a link between higher knowledge levels and increased social acceptance. That said, self-reported overall knowledge is low, suggesting opportunities for improvement.

“Effective community engagement is fundamental to this process as is communicating with local communities about how these sites are governed and the context of the state’s overall planning and strategies for waste management,” Andrea says.

She notes, much like Mark, that this process needs to involve both government and industry stakeholders.

“Done well, these initiatives help to improve trust in the sector and ultimately more acceptance of a waste operator’s activities. However, this sort of interaction has to be genuine and meaningful to local communities,” she says.

NEXT STEPS FOR EASTERN CREEK

In October 2019, Cleanaway and the Macquarie Capital Green Investment Group announced plans to co-invest and co-develop a WtE plant in Eastern Creek, not far from Mr Malouf’s proposed 2018 site.

According to Mark Biddulph, Cleanaway Head of Corporate Affairs, the proposed facility aims to divert up to 500,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste from landfill, and use it to generate electricity for more than 65,000 homes and businesses. He adds that the proposal is still in the early stages of the approvals process, having only recently received the Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirements.

Despite this, Cleanaway hosted a community workshop in November 2019, with the aim of engaging a broad cross section of the community to seek questions, ideas and feedback. Further community engagement will take place throughout 2020.

“Cleanaway is committed to involving the Western Sydney community in the development process and engaging with them often and openly,” Mark says.

Should the facility be approved, Mark says Cleanaway is looking forward to setting up a visitor and education centre onsite to encourage further knowledge sharing. He adds that Cleanaway also plans to invest in a number of local community programs.

“Building trust and SLO within the Western Sydney is critical to Cleanaway. To do this we’re committed to ongoing engagement, transparency and best practice operations that reflect and align with sustainable waste management,” Mark says.

“It’s essential to bring the community with us on the journey.”

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Larvae to produce compost

Canberra-based start-up Goterra and CSIRO researchers are testing conditions to encourage fly mating, with the intention of producing larvae that eats through food waste.

CSIRO’s farming experts are working with lighting, temperature, moisture, surface texture and diet combinations to boost egg-laying.

Goterra aims to use the insects to create compost, which will reduce food sent landfill, enrich soil with nutrient-rich fertiliser and reduce transport emissions.

Goterra CEO Olympia Yarger said working with CSIRO meant her business could develop in multiple directions.

“We were inspired to start the business out of passion for insects and a belief in harnessing them to work for us, whether that’s as a source of food with edible insects, or to process food waste using larvae,” Ms Yarger said.

“We’re building the technology to breed the insects and transport them to wherever there is a need, creating a mobile and versatile alternative to everything from sources of protein to landfill.”

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Waste marketplace goes national

Advisory System for Processing, Innovation & Resource Exchange (ASPIRE) has transitioned out of CSIRO’s digital specialist arm to scale its operations nationally.

Developed by researchers in 2015, ASPIRE is an online marketplace that matches businesses with potential remanufactures, purchasers and recyclers to find new purposes for waste materials.

ASPIRE CEO Cameron McKenzie said while the online marketplace had seen impressive uptake amongst businesses, state governments and local councils in Victoria, a national network was pivotal to tackle the waste crisis.

“Around 300 businesses are using ASPIRE, which has collectively saved $207,000 in waste disposal and material costs. This has also resulted in a reduction of CO2 emissions and water through reuse and diversion from landfill,” Mr McKenzie said.

“While we’ve had strong traction in Victoria, we’re scaling ASPIRE nationally to address the increasing need for a way to manage Australia’s growing waste and recycling issues.”

CSIRO research scientist Melanie Ayre said ASPIRE had diverted hundreds of waste streams from landfill including batteries, e-waste, metals, organics and polystyrene since launching.

“Almost 80 per cent of Australia’s waste is generated through commercial, industrial, construction or demolition activities,” Dr Ayre said.

“We developed ASPIRE in response to rising costs of waste management, and to redirect waste to more productive uses.”

According to the 2018 National Waste Policy, a hypothetical five per cent improvement in efficient use of materials across the Australian economy could benefit Australia’s GDP by as much as $24 billion.

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Climate change impact: MRA Consulting

MRA’s Mike Ritchie speaks to Waste Management Review about the waste sector’s contribution to national emissions and its role in meeting Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.  

Read moreClimate change impact: MRA Consulting

CSIRO develops smelting process to reduce hazardous waste

Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, has developed a smelting process to produce soluble phosphate for fertiliser from low value ores, eliminating hazardous waste and making production more economically and environmentally sustainable.

Phosphate is a key ingredient in fertilisers and essential for plant health and growth. The AUD$73 billion global phosphate market continues to grow as demand for fertiliser increases to meet food production needs.

CSIRO team leader, Keith Barnard, said the CSIRO-developed PyroPhos process offers a simpler, safer and more efficient alternative to conventional phosphate production processes.

“The PyroPhos smelting process uses high temperature to extract phosphate from ores, producing prized phosphate feedstock and a glassy gravel that can be used in road base construction and Portland cement,” Dr Barnard said.

“A major benefit of the process is that is can be used on lower grade ores giving phosphate miners and processors the opportunity to increase their productivity in an environmentally sustainable way.”

The PyroPhos process is exclusively licenced to PyroPhos, a subsidiary of Process Capital.

Director of PyroPhos, Mark Muzzin, believes it’s a unique technology offering in the soluble phosphate fertiliser market.

“Our networks and investor base give us the ability to connect PyroPhos technology to the global phosphate industry,” Mr Muzzin said.

“We have had an excellent response from the industry and believe it has the ability to make a major impact.”

PyroPhos technology has emerged out of decades of research from CSIRO’s award-winning Sirosmelt innovation and pryometalurgical expertise.

Consortium to harness value from agricultural waste

A new $10.9 million research consortium is set to increase the value of agricultural waste by turning it into new products, led by the University of Adelaide.

A total of 18 partners will come together to develop high-value products from agricultural waste, including nine South Australian based companies from the agriculture and food sector alongside nine national and international academic institutions and industry partners.

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The Agricultural Product Development Research Consortium has been granted $4 million over four years by the South Australian Government, with the University of Adelaide contributing $2.3 million, with the remaining support coming from partners.

Biomolecules that can be derived from crop waste show potential anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-cancer or gut health properties. Other uses include providing mechanical strength or texturizing properties in food, structural materials, lubricants and cosmetics.

Waste from apples, cherries and mushrooms could be used in skin care products thanks to their biological makeup while waste from broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts or cabbage could have potential benefits for diabetic patients.

Research Consortium Lead Investigator and Director of Adelaide Glycomics Professor Vincent Bulone said Agriculture is a key contributor to SA’s economy which has a potential to generate high value products and create post-farm gate industries.

“Our agricultural and horticultural industries generate abundant waste biomass, which is currently disposed of at a cost to the producer, or only a low return. But there are compounds we can derive from this waste – a range of different ‘biomolecules’ – that have high-value potential applications for their structural or health properties,” he said.

Some consortium partners include CSIRO, University of South Australia, KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), Coopers Brewery, Carlsberg Group (Denmark), Raw Nation Wholefoods, Vanquish Technologies and Ingredion Inc (USA).

SA Minister for Industry and Skills David Pisoni said South Australia’s agricultural sector is a significant contributor to the growth of the state’s economy.

“The outcomes from this major research consortia that includes local, national and international research institutions along with industry partners, will contribute to the creation of new post-farmgate industries through the development and commercialisation of value-added products from agricultural waste,” he said.

Australia could be the future of battery recycling – report

Australia could lead the world in lithium-ion battery recycling, according to a new report.

The ‘Lithium battery recycling in Australia’ report says a new battery recycling industry could be possible to reuse and recycle Australia’s annual 3300 tonnes of lithium-ion battery waste.

It looks at the growing demand for lithium-ion technology, which is currently being used in large amounts of electronics and household devices.

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The report says an effective recycling industry could also stabilise global lithium supplies to meet consumer demand.

The majority of Australia’s battery waste is shipped overseas, with the rest being sent to landfill, creating fire and environmental risks. It is a growing waste, increasing by 20 per cent each year and could exceed 100,000 tonnes by 2036.

Only 2 per cent of Australia’s lithium-ion battery waste is currently recycled, however 95 per cent of the components can be turned into new batteries or used in other industries.

In comparison, of the 150,000 tonnes of lead-acid batteries sold in 2010, 98 per cent were recycled.

CSIRO research is supporting recycling efforts, with research underway on processes for recovery of metals and materials, development of new battery materials, and support for the circular economy around battery reuse and recycling.

CSIRO battery research leader Anand Bhatt said Australia must responsibly manage its use of lithium-ion technology in support of a clean energy future.

“The value for Australia is three-fold. We can draw additional value from existing materials, minimise impact on our environment, and also catalyse a new industry in lithium-ion re-use/recycling,” Dr Bhatt said.

Dr Bhatt and his team are working with industry to develop processes that can support the transition to domestic recycling of lithium-ion batteries.

“The development of processes to effectively and efficiently recycle these batteries can generate a new industry in Australia. Further, effective recycling of lithium batteries can offset the current concerns around lithium security,” Dr Bhatt said.

Australian Battery Recycling Initiative CEO Libby Chaplin said the report came at a critical time.

“Currently we are racing towards a world where lithium batteries are a very big part of our energy supply, yet we have some real work to do to ensure we are able to recycle the end product once it has reached its use by date,” Ms Chaplin said.

“The CSIRO report provides critical information at an opportune time given the discussions around how to shape a product stewardship scheme for the energy storage sector.”

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