Announcements in last year’s Federal Budget regarding the Modern Manufacturing Fund and the Recycling Capability Fund lay the ground for a potential revolution in green manufacturing in Australia, writes Professor Veena Sahajwalla.

The innovations in recycling, manufacturing and critical materials processing, sought through the 2020 Federal Budget, could not have come at a better time. Years of research underpinning newly developed recycling science and technologies in these areas can help supercharge these Budget ambitions and what I call a new ‘green manufacturing’ future. And the widespread call for using hydrogen and other ‘renewable’ resources in steelmaking, comes more than ten years after I developed Green Steel technology, patented as Polymer Injection Technology.

Our Green Steel technology is already paving the way for green manufacturing globally, using the elements of hydrogen and carbon from old rubber tyres and plastics as an alternative for coal and coke, traditionally crucial ingredients for electric arc furnace steelmaking.

Recycling in new ways like this, using new technologies can be a foundation for the manufacture of high-quality materials from our waste resources, as we seek to develop greater sovereign capability and improved economic prosperity. Recycling and reforming waste materials for completely new uses – for example obtaining hydrogen from waste materials as an energy source and input material for manufacturing like steelmaking – should be at the centre of how we transform our manufacturing sector.

Brand-new research at my UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre has now found another way that could contribute to this new ‘green manufacturing’ revolution. We’ve developed a technology to create Green Aluminium by, for the first time, being able to cleanly separate it from plastics and other materials in mixed materials packaging wastes, like food packaging and coffee capsules.

These sorts of technologies and innovations need to find their way into widespread use across our industries, especially for the important small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that are the economic engine room of the nation.

The key is to use the 2020 Budget initiatives, and this new COVID-era focus on needing greater onshore manufacturing capability, to translate our proven domestic research and development innovations, and those to come, into broad industrial applications. That is why it was exciting to hear about the newly announced Recycling Modernisation Fund, as well as the six Budget priority areas announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, particularly those relating to manufacturing and recycling, and resources technology and critical minerals processing.

Imagine being able to harness domestically – from electronic waste, or e-waste – the critical materials and precious metals like cobalt, gold, palladium and platinum, and others, for use as feedstock in local manufacturing. This could create export opportunities and reduce the need for virgin materials as well as all the associated environmental and economic costs.

Therefore, we need these newly announced measures focussing on manufacturing and recycling, and critical minerals processing, to accelerate the collaboration between research institutions and industry. But more importantly, I see this as a vital opportunity to create an alignment between manufacturing and recycling, because currently these two sectors are seen as separate areas with little interaction and collaboration.

We need this new alignment if we are going to get the innovations needed, and desired, for these sectors, and to enhance our sovereign capability in addition to being known as the suppliers of primary materials. A capability to transform and reform waste materials into manufacturing feedstock, new materials and products should be central to this alignment and the Budget initiatives.

A new alignment of recycling and manufacturing

Who would have thought, for instance, that rubber tyres and plastics could be used as raw materials for steelmaking, or that we can reform textiles and glass into very new age and beautiful ceramics for the built environment?

These sorts of discoveries from the laboratories of our universities and research institutions need to find their way into small, medium and large scale manufacturing and recycling. This would be a major boost to the existing and traditional methods of recycling. The concept of Translational Research Partnerships long espoused by UNSW President and Vice Chancellor Ian Jacobs provides a practical pathway to achieve this.

This would enable the collaborative innovation prototyping, commercialisation and industrial take-up to ensure the national priorities deliver the needed outcomes our society needs, including creating circular economies.

A new alignment of recycling and manufacturing alone would be a major boost to developing circular economies, where materials are kept in use for as long as possible, thus creating greater sustainability and better economic outcomes.

The downfall of existing and traditional recycling is that it mostly creates low-value products. We need it to create high value products and materials that can add to and even create new supply chains and boost our manufacturing capability. All of the new national priority areas need materials and manufacturing feedstock, things like all of the critical materials which we can obtain from innovative ways of recycling waste.

The UNSW SMaRT Centre is helping to create the alignment of recycling and manufacturing, and our new technique to recover aluminium from complex, multilayered packaging is based on this alignment concept. We call it Thermal Disengagement Technology (Green Aluminium) and it builds on our various waste materials innovations, including our recent Microfactorie technologies.

These small-scale, modular technologies can transform problematic waste materials, such as glass, textiles and plastics, into new value-added materials and products such as our new age green ceramics for the built environment. They can also reform waste plastic into filament as a feedstock resource for manufacturers and other users who do 3D printing.

Almost all our SMaRT Centre innovations have been developed in collaboration with industry. And, across Australia, there are many excellent collaborations underway.

My vision is for a decentralised – not centralised – application of the modernisation of recycling and manufacturing in Australia. These sectors should be laterally integrated, or connected, so supply chains are less vulnerable to disruption from things like a global pandemic.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… Reform

The plastics, rubber, glass and paper wastes exports bans announced in August 2019 by the Council of Australian Government – now replaced by the new National Federation Reform Council with National Cabinet at its centre – commenced from 1 January 2021. These bans will have widescale impacts across the waste, recycling, manufacturing and local council sectors, and much needs to be done to prepare our nation for these impacts.

At SMaRT, we are adding a fourth R to the three Rs of ‘Reduce’, ‘Reuse’ and ‘Recycle’, with ‘Reform’ – by reforming waste into value-added materials. This can help to better laterally integrate our recycling and manufacturing sectors, including small, medium and large operators.

While COVID-19 has unearthed weaknesses in our current way forward to meet sovereign needs and challenges, we can start a whole new ‘green materials’ movement where we use waste as renewable resources for manufacturing, thus laying the foundations for the next economic growth period. Digital capability, devices and our electrification as a society rely on finite materials and resources.

Doing more sophisticated onshore waste-processing, recycling and reforming as part of manufacturing can change the game for Australia, indeed all countries around the world, as we lean into current sustainability and economic challenges.

For me, the goal is to eliminate the word “waste” from our vernacular. I hope one day waste will be seen by all as the renewable resource many already know it is.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla is the Founder and Director of the Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) – Sydney