UNSW Professor Veena Sahajwalla will spearhead a new national research centre investigating technology for waste reduction and materials processing, as part of the Federal Government’s $149 million National Environmental Science Program (NESP).
NESP research will be prioritised to meet pressing environmental management and policy needs, with an emphasis on waste impacts, climate adaptation, threatened species and protected places.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the new structure will bring together an exciting range of scientists in each field along with ‘on-ground’ stakeholders and Traditional Owners to tackle complex environmental challenges.
“We are investing a further $149 million in a flexible approach across the new hubs that informs policy and drives shared learning,” she said.
“It is an investment that will build on the $145 million funding to date that has seen almost 400 successful science projects that are shaping policy and delivering practical environmental outcomes.”
The Sustainable Communities and Waste Hub will be led by Sahajwalla, a materials scientist, engineer, inventor and a founder and director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology.
The Centre has pioneered microfactories for turning plastic waste into 3D printing material, green-steel technology that recycles tyres and plastics, and transforming textile waste into tiles and benchtops.
Sahajwalla said she was delighted with the government’s announcement of four mega science hubs, with waste a key priority.
“Waste and recycling have been made a national agenda item by government and through this new hub we will create actionable knowledge, methods, tools and data for transformation towards circular economies in our cities and regions,” she said.
“Our capabilities, proposed research activities and transition pathways will deliver the environmental, social and economic outcomes and impacts that are sought by the NESP which funds the hub.”
The Sustainable Communities and Waste Hub consortium is comprised of six research institutions led by UNSW Sydney, working in partnership with CSIRO, Monash University, Swinburne University of Technology, Curtin University and the University of Tasmania.
It will coordinate research on reducing the impact of plastic and enhancing sustainable people-environment interactions, develop ways to minimise impacts of hazardous substances and pollutants, and deliver cutting-edge technical capabilities, particularly in the fields of waste and materials processing.
“Australia is world-leading in economic performance, health and liveable cities, but this comes at significant environmental cost with per-capita material, carbon and water footprints that are among the highest in the world,” Sahajwalla said.
“Every Australian generates 2.7 tonnes of waste a year, with only 58 per cent of that recovered from landfill, which is low by international standards.”
Sahajwalla added that an estimated 87 per cent of plastic ends up in landfill.
“It is predicted that by 2050, 99 per cent of all seabird species will have ingested plastic from the marine environment,” she said.
“In addition to harmful environmental impacts, these losses equate to lost value in materials from the supply chain, that are replaced with virgin materials, placing additional burden on natural, human and economic resources.
“A five per cent improvement in the efficiency of our material use could benefit Australia’s GDP by as much as $24 billion a year.”
According to Sahajwalla, value needs to be placed on the materials from which a product is made, and it needs to be recognised that these materials can be recycled or reformed.
“At present, there is a focus on waste management at one end of the supply chain, with an emerging recycling and manufacturing industry at the other,” she said.
“New innovations and supply chains need to better link the two together to achieve the desired solution of recycling the materials of waste products so they can be reformed in our manufacturing industries.
“Protecting the environment and our health from hazardous waste, substances and pollutants is an ongoing challenge and we are all excited to be helping to address this challenge through this new Sustainable Communities and Waste Hub consortium.”
The new hubs will come into effect in early 2021, with the existing hubs running until mid-2021.