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New technologies and how to build a circular economy

Professor Sahajwalla is the Director of the new government-funded NSW Circular Economy Innovation Network, based in Australia.

The year 2019 is shaping up as a tipping point for action to address the challenges surrounding global sustainability and waste management. This positive development comes as discussion among governments, researchers, not-for-profits and corporates is shifting towards a ‘can do’ attitude to reducing waste and changing attitudes, behaviours and practices.

This article was published in Recycling Technology / Reading time: 5 min.

A new groundswell is underway across the globe as corporates, communities and societies are moving from the linear economic approach of ‘make, use, dispose’ to a circular economy where the aspiration is to keep materials out of landfill and incinerators, and in use for as long as possible.

Realisation of the need to close the economic loop so that used materials and waste streams are treated as the renewable resources they truly are is dawning on decision-makers the world over. This coincides with increased scientific focus on, and business innovation around, viewing waste as a commodity to better manage long-term social, environmental and economic impacts.

A magic transformer  

For instance, new technology and capability derived from the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, can produce building panels from old clothing and textiles, as well as plastics, waste timber and glass.

This Microfactory technology can transform waste glass into engineered flat ceramic products, which have been used to make stools and table-tops, as well as for decorative purposes. They are now also being tested for flooring and walling applications.

It can also transform electronic waste such as phones, laptops and printers into high-quality plastic filaments for 3D printing, and to extract and reform metal alloys from printed circuit boards, eliminating the need for conventional smelting technologies.

Game-changing solutions

These scientifically developed microrecycling processes can provide game-changing solutions to produce materials from waste on a small scale, and demonstrate that a period of disruption is underway.

A key challenge is to harness the commercial appetite and opportunity to create value from the materials that end up in landfill to ensure societies divert at scale the waste that can be reformed into new, valued-added materials, products and manufacturing feedstock.

This involves actively working with companies and organisations seeking to enshrine circular economy principles in their operations so they can know who are the other participants in these new supply chains, understand where and how they fit in, and what the opportunities are.

Seeking a win-win

The main difficulty is there are so many stakeholders across all the supply chains that there is no effective connectivity process for circular economy participants. For example, an organisation with a waste problem might be able to send these materials to another company which is able to use them in its operations, but there is no awareness of this win-win solution within local economies.

Another challenge is the need to encourage designers and producers of products, packaging and applicable services to ‘build in’ from the very beginning of the product lifecycle a consideration for how all of the materials used will become part of the circular economy when an end-user has no further need for the product and treats it as waste.

Silver lining

China’s National Sword policy banning other countries from sending their waste to that country is being replicated across Asia, and the silver lining in this development has been to cause an acceleration of positive reform around waste and recycling policy among many national, state and local governments.

In Australia, the national government re-elected in May 2019 announced the country’s first-ever ministerial role for ‘waste reduction’, to be connected to its foreshadowed Waste Recycling Investment Plan. Each of the state governments in Australia now also has circular economy policies and statements, and is working hard to change the value chain around waste.

Another positive development has been the establishment of dedicated initiatives to create networks and hubs that bring together the various stakeholders across supply chains so as to work together to find the opportunities necessary to make changes that not only reduce waste but also ensure it can be valued and used as a renewable resource through circular solutions.

Local loop-closing

In the state of New South Wales (NSW), for example, we are working hard to close the loop wherever possible on materials in local economies by building awareness and new connections to create value-added products through materials reuse or transformation, particularly for materials which can be directed into high-quality manufacturing solutions.

I was honoured to be appointed in March this year as the Director of the new government-funded NSW Circular Economy Innovation Network, which has been tasked with helping drive this change across Australia’s largest state.

Global drivers

At an international level, there has been growing momentum in this space. This type of work is perhaps best known through UN Environment, the World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with initiatives such as the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy. However, small-scale actions and solutions through market-based networks like ours are required to meet the needs of local businesses that make up the majority of economies.

In March 2019, the European Commission adopted a comprehensive report on the implementation of the Circular Economy Action Plan, which presents its main achievements so far and sketches out future challenges to developing circular economies to reduce pressure on natural and freshwater resources, as well as ecosystems.

New Technical Committee 

To demonstrate the growing importance of circular economy principles, a new Technical Committee under the International Organization for Standardization was announced in July 2019 with the objective to help make the global circular economy a reality by steering local projects towards a sustainable, agreed global standard.

Known as ISO/TC 323 – Circular Economy, this Technical Committee will develop requirements, frameworks, guidance and support tools, with the aim of ensuring implementation of UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Committee comprises experts from over 65 countries, with Australia sitting as an observer member.

So while there is growing concern around the need for greater sustainability, I actually see 2019 as a tipping point year when the momentum of change is starting to crystallise the concept of a circular economy. This is a period of disruption we must have.

A better life for all

The bottom line is a circular economy creates local jobs, enhances the economy, and improves social and environmental wellbeing. The pace of change must accelerate into the next decade so we can live more sustainably and harmoniously on our planet.

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