Environment MDIA3010_18 MDIA3010_2ndFeature Science Society

The answer to our waste crisis could lie in a pile of rubbish

By Sophie Hodge

As Australia’s waste crisis continues, innovators are looking for sustainable waste management solutions and finding answers in bizarre places.

Used plastic bottles, broken phones, and worm poo all have one thing in common: they are all seemingly useless waste products.

But companies are challenging the idea that waste is invaluable. Businesses across the world are using waste as a resource for innovative solutions to the world-wide waste problem.

One U.S recycling company, TerraCycle, was ironically born from worm poo itself, says PR Manager Liz Keen.

The company’s founding CEO, Tom Szaky, formed the idea for the recycling initiative when observing worms during his studies at Princeton University.

“His friends were using liquid worm poo on their plants, and it was a really effective fertiliser as it made the plants really healthy. They were feeding their kitchen scraps to the worms, and then the worms created a fertiliser, and they put that on plants… He fell in love with worms, and the fact that they could convert waste that would otherwise go into landfill into something valuable,” Keen says.

“He used the food waste from Princeton University’s cafeteria, and he had tens of thousands of worms, and fed that food waste to them. They were creating fertiliser, and he sold that fertiliser as plant food in used fizzy drink bottles.”

“So effectively he just created a business using two waste items that would otherwise go to landfill: food waste and bottles.”

With an ethos of ‘eliminating the idea of waste’, TerraCycle was born. Since their inception in 2001, TerraCycle now operates in 21 countries, including Australia, and has diverted over 4 billion pieces of non-recyclable waste from landfill.

The company has expanded from fertiliser to transform cigarette butts into ashtrays, beauty product packaging into playgrounds and even old pens into outdoor furniture.

“There’s a plethora of waste streams that without TerraCycle there isn’t a national recycling solution, or [one] at all for those items, so they would otherwise go to landfill,” Keen says.

“So, we have developed the recycling solutions and the method to convert that waste into a sustainable raw material.”

Projects such as theirs represent innovations in response to a sweeping waste crisis and could be an answer to Australia’s concern following China’s recent refusal to accept waste deposits from down under.

Man empties bottle recycling bin in Central Station, Sydney. Source: Sarah Muller

Approximately one third of Australia’s recyclable waste is exported to China, reports suggest. However, the recent ban will see Australia processing recyclable waste onshore – with limited space and resources to do so.

Senior Research Consultant for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology (UTS), Elsa Dominish, says a circular economy is critical to challenging the crisis. Implementing a closed-loop system in Australia that keeps all valuable resources within the economy is a viable long-term solution.

“The circular economy is the idea that 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 says.

“There’s three concepts flowing down how quickly we use things: narrowing how many resources we use, so being more efficient, in terms of packaging that would be having smaller packaging or no packaging. Then the third concept is closing the loop, so making sure that waste for something can be a used as an input for a new product.”

This is the system companies such as TerraCycle wish to create. But another potential solution was recently born closer to home, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney.

The world’s first micro-factory launched earlier in 2018 at the UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre. The machine can transform electronic waste (e-waste) such as discarded phones, along with waste glass or plastics into new, raw materials.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla was responsible for the innovation and implementation of the micro-factory. Inputting e-waste, waste glass, plastics, textiles, or a combination of the above, results in an array of outputs including panels for industrial buildings and even metal alloys like copper or tin.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla speaking at UNSW SMaRT Centre. Source: UNSWTV

Like TerraCycle, the idea lies in recognising that materials we throw away still have fundamentally inherent properties, and these can be recycled into something more valuable.

She says the micro-factory represents a localised solution to the waste crisis and has long-term social and economic benefits; reaching both small communities and big businesses.

“The one thing we have in common is generally a lot of waste, no matter where you are in the world. So, there’s a huge opportunity there with all the waste resources, just the type of waste can be different depending on where you live in the world… so micro-factories have to be flexible enough to account for differences,” she says.

“Micro-factories have to be all about relying on local waste resources, which means you don’t have to depend on inputting some expensive raw materials from elsewhere, and therefore you’ve saved on the cost of transporting…

“What we’re really saying here is that you can save the costs of logistics because you can process your waste into valuable products… [which are] generally used within the local region, then you’ve also saved money from having to depend on mileage associated with your products travelling long distances.”

Professor Sahajwalla says the micro-factory is currently undergoing licensing from a number of businesses (for confidentiality reasons these remain unnamed) and a second micro-factory is under construction in the SMaRT Centre.

Close up of the micro-factory at UNSW’s SMaRT Centre. Source: Dana Pendrick

While demand for these innovations is growing, researcher Elsa Dominish says gaining public momentum to create a stronger market is necessary for change.

A survey conducted for this publication found that while nearly 80% of respondents would be willing to pay more for products made from recycled materials, 70% would still buy a cheaper product made from virgin materials considering it looked and felt the same as the recycled one.

“I think a lot of companies face the issue of they don’t have 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,” Dominish says.

So, the challenge is a combination of social acceptance and economic feasibility.

“It is generally more expensive to use recycled than virgin stuff. But that’s because we’re not accounting for the full environmental cost for using virgin plastics,” Dominish says.

“If we took that into account the world would be a different place.”

And the quest for recycling solutions encompasses all industries. With 6,000 kilograms of textile waste dumped every ten minutes, according to ABC’s War on Waste program, the fashion industry cannot be left out of the equation.

Vivify Textiles, a manufacturer of recycled polyester and nylon from plastic bottles and fishing nets found at sea, aims to combine fashion and sustainability.

Rose, a spokesperson from Vivify, says recycled textiles have a direct benefit diverting waste from landfill.

Vivify claims their process uses 33-53% less energy than manufacturing regular polyester and requires less water to manufacture than regular polyester. So, in addition to reducing waste (both plastic and textile), the company also reduces energy and resource use.

Investing in recycling initiatives such as TerraCycle, micro-factories, or recycled textile manufacturers has benefits for business too.

“From [the company’s] point of view, they’re seen as really proactive and forward-thinking,” says Professor Sahajwalla.

“It has to happen organically… [companies] see some benefits flowing in because their customers see it as a good thing to do, and once all of that happens you develop that ecosystem of people who really want to see change happening.”

If a brand born from worm poo can challenge the traditional meaning of waste, perhaps there is hope for the future.