China’s recent ban on foreign waste imports has thrown Australia into the dumps. But could saving our own rubbish be the key to create an economically sustainable, waste-free future?
Following China’s ban of foreign waste imports, more than 600,000 tonnes of waste materials, including textiles, plastics and metals, have piled up in warehouses across Australia.
The brunt of the ban is being felt in parts of Queensland and Victoria with some councils planning to dump kerbside recycling because of the cost.
According the National Waste Report, Australians produced 64 million tonnes of waste between 2014 and 2015 with 60 percent being recycled. This number is predicted to rise, so what can we do with our rubbish?
UNSW Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla sees waste as a “positive resource”. By using an electronic waste (e-waste) microfactory, Professor Sahajwalla is able to extract components from old electronics and re-create them into raw materials.
“It’s about creating products that are built on the back of materials that we throw away but recognising that the materials we throw away fundamentally still have the inherent properties that are there,” she said.
“Just because it’s a piece of broken glass, doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly not useful anymore. It can still be used as another product that comes to life in a completely different way.”
Launched at the beginning of April, the world’s first e-waste micro factory at UNSW can extract valuable metal alloys, such cooper, tin and gold, which can be used to build new products.
“A lot of these metallics are waste strategic,” she said.
“You produce them on a niche, smaller scale and still make enough money to create local jobs and employ enough people.”
The purpose of the micro factory is to not only reduce the amount of waste, but also provide economic opportunities for both large businesses and smaller community groups.
While Professor Sahajwalla admitted the initial cost would be expensive, it is expected that the micro factory will save more money overtime and will strengthen local economies.
“Micro factories have to be all about relying on local waste resources, which means you don’t have to depend on inputting expensive raw materials from elsewhere and you save on the cost of transporting,” said the Professor.
“You also save on the cost of shipping your waste elsewhere, like China – the obvious elephant in the room – and therefore it saves costs of operation.
“It’s creating not economies of scale, but rather economies of purpose. That’s what I like to call it.”
Professor Sahajwalla hopes that the government will support the idea of micro factories existing in local communities, which she said requires no prior expertise or skill to operate.
“If you were in a small community, you’d just make enough and then you’d sell it into your locally community, whether you want filaments for 3D printing or panels for building and construction.”
Another initiative that re-creates non-recyclable goods into raw materials is run by TerraCycle Australia.
Operating as a global recycling platform, TerraCycle has diverted over four billion pieces of non-recyclable waste, such as coffee capsules and toothpaste tubes, into recyclable plastic pellets that are used to manufacture other products.
“We approach local recycling facilities in Australia and we rent their equipment to process the waste. The waste is shredded, washed, and then it’s melted down into plastic pellets, and these pellets are then used in manufacturing,” said Liz Keen, Public Relations Manager for TerraCycle Australia.
The pellets have been used to make gardens beds, hair combs and even ashtrays that were originally sourced from cigarette butts. More recently, TerraCycle Australia committed to creating a playground made entirely from recycled beauty products.
“Over the two-month period, about 130 schools collected 145,000 beauty products that would have otherwise ended up in landfill.
“We’re now in the process of recycling those beauty products and turning those into a playground,” said Keen.
While most plastics are thought to be non-recyclable, Keen said that everything can in fact be recycled, but it comes at a cost that most businesses cannot afford.
“The greatest barrier to recycling isn’t the plastic composition of a product, it’s actually economics. When recycling companies and councils are recycling products like paper, glass and aluminium, the recycled by-products or those materials can be on-sold at a profit,” she said.
“With China’s ban, a lot of councils are saying they will have to boost their rates for [recycling] to be economically sustainable.
“Unless it’s economically beneficial to a recycling company or a council to recycle waste, they are not going to do it. So, that’s when TerraCycle steps in and fills that economic gap.”
Since 2014, TerraCycle Australia has operated 12 recycling programs across the country allowing people to send non-recyclable waste, free of charge, to places where it will be recycled back into the economy.
Keen said that sponsorships from companies like L’Oréal and Colgate fund the programs and allow TerraCycle to give back to the local community by providing valuable, sustainable products.
“We recycled ‘Nescafé dolce gusto’ capsules in South Australia and these were turned into tree surroundings and sold at Bunnings.
“By providing these free recycling programs, which is for waste that would otherwise go to landfill, we don’t rely on the market value,” said Keen.
“This is a really good opportunity for the Australian recycling industry to grow.”
Senior Research Consultant Elsa Dominish from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS said we need to invest in recycling and re-manufacturing products already in Australia to support local economies.
“The issue is that we’re still reasonably reliant on manufacturing imports,” she said.
“We’re going to have more coming in than what we need to supply our own market.”
While Dominish agrees waste can be used to create new products, she said that the current flow of imports outweighs Australia’s “reasonably small” domestic market.
“We want to value resources as much as possible by keeping them within the economy rather than using them once and sending them to landfill,” she said.
“But a lot of companies face the issue of not having a lot of people who want to buy the products yet, so people really need to be demanding or seeking out things made of recycled content.”
A survey conducted by students at UNSW found that almost 80 percent of participants would prefer to buy a product made from recycled materials, such as recycled plastics, however only 30 percent would be willing pay more for these goods.
Dominish said Australia’s manufacturing industry needs to use home-made products that are affordable for both producers and consumers and would allow companies to invest in new recycling facilities.
In an attempt to make sustainable textiles, Dr Rebecca van Amber from Deakin University grinds local denim products into particles which are then sprayed onto organic fabrics to create new and affordable home-made materials.
“The fabrics we make can provide alternative solutions to pigment printings, as they use waste textiles… and turn them into a valuable resource that can be used again,” she said.
“This is a technology that goes beyond recycling of just denim and will hopefully have an impact on the total textile recycling process.”
While China’s waste ban sent shockwaves across Australia, experts seemed to have it all under control.
The invention of sustainable and eco-friendly ways to transform rubbish into valuable products is a promising start for a waste-free future.