Waste Management Review speaks with Veena Sahajwalla about a decentralised approach to sustainable materials research and technology.
With textile waste fast becoming one of the Earth’s most pressing environmental concerns, Sustainable Schoolwear is providing a small-scale solution by manufacturing school clothes out of recycled polyester and plastic bottles.
Developed in 2013, the small business recently expanded its operations through a new partnership with NSW Government initiative NSW Circular and the UNSW Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT).
According to Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Director of both NSW Circular and the SMaRT Centre, initial results from a pilot project to reform used and old school uniforms into flat panels to create new school desks have been positive.
The next phase of the project is testing the “school uniform” flat panels to make school desks that are viable. Veena says the technology to do this illustrates the benefits of finding new uses for items often destined for landfill by ‘upcycling’ waste streams in innovative ways.
Sustainable Schoolwear is just one of many organisations joining NSW Circular in pilot projects. Other projects involve working to transform e-waste plastics into value added manufacturing feedstock and products, and reforming and recycling agricultural wrap.
NSW Circular’s pilot projects aim to translate cleantech innovation into tangible real-world outcomes by treating waste as a resource and diverting it from landfill and stockpiling.
Highlighting the success of these projects, Veena says new ways are needed to accelerate Australia’s growing cleantech industry.
“When we clearly demonstrate the application of sustainable materials research to practical localised solutions, it provides inspiration to others looking to engage in the field.If a council can see the innovative projects another council is engaged with, they think: we can do that, too.”
Veena, who in addition to her roles with NSW Circular and the UNSW SMaRT Centre, sits on the National Cleantech Conference & Exhibition (NCTCE) advisory panel, stresses the importance of engaging with end-users.
“We can do all the technology and science work we want, but we also need to demonstrate its application and translate that for the end user,” she says.
Veena says the future of the Australian Cleantech industry depends on the sector’s ability to connect with communities, decision-makers and investors and have a measurable impact and drive its own growth.
Now in its second year, NCTCE will take place at the Brisbane Conference and Exhibition Centre on 22-23 March 2021. The two-day program will focus on cleantech as an instigator of innovation, economic development, creative collaborations and inclusive prosperity.
“Cleantech science and technology can be overwhelming at times, so coming together at a conference such as NCTCE, talking to experts and highlighting case studies, is a good way for people to understand what’s going on,” Veena says.
Approaching cleantech in a decentralised manner is critical, Venna says, highlighting that Australia’s geographical nature demands localised solutions.
“What will work in a capital city will be different to that in a regional town. It’s about shifting our traditional large-scale mindset and creating new market opportunities and solutions that will very often slot into existing demand,” she says.
“There isn’t one answer for everything. You need to design processes around the specific requirements of each project and the ecosystem you’re working in, which in turn works to empower local regions.”
The long-term goal of Veena’s work with NSW Circular, the SMaRT Centre and NCTCE, is to enable local businesses and communities to produce the products and materials they need using their own resources derived from local waste.
This can be achieved, Veena explains, through novel research into sustainable materials and manufacturing processes and then building industry partnerships to operationalise new manufacturing technologies.
“This unique approach aims to disrupt today’s centralised, vertically integrated industrial model and its global mass markets, with agile technologies driving the decentralisation of manufacturing.”
Tiffany Bower, NCTCE Program Director, feels similarly, noting the role of cleantech innovation in building a resilient national economy.
“NCTCE is not focused on just one solution because change will take a holistic approach across technologies, behaviours and policies,” she says.
“Many people don’t realise there are government agencies at all levels already doing great work in this area. There is funding available and resources they can access to help build their cleantech innovation and business.”
Tiffany adds that NCTCE’s speaker program aims to spotlight best-practice case studies, innovative partnerships and new business models.
“It’s really important to us that this conference is accessible to the small businesses and start-ups that comprise the majority of the cleantech industry. We have kept ticket prices as low as possible, while ensuring a world-class education and professional development program.