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Recycling expert Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre, has welcomed the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications Inquiry into waste and recycling report released late yesterday, but is calling for immediate action on the problem of growing stockpiles of recyclable materials.

“I commend the Committee on its extensive work and thorough report which highlights the current recycling crisis in Australia partly resulting from the China waste importation ban. The report’s headline recommendations to ban single use plastics by 2023 and to call for a national deposit container scheme are commendable, but a solution is available right now to reduce stockpiles,” Professor Sahajwalla said.

As detailed in the UNSW Sydney submission (number 62) to the Inquiry, the SMaRT Centre's scientifically developed technology enables waste streams like plastics and glass to be reformed into valuable resources for manufacturing. The reformation can be done at remote and regional locations, where the report calls for special attention on waste stockpiles.

UNSW has developed the world’s first ‘microfactories’ to take all of the recycled containers and materials put out in council bins, along with other waste streams, and convert them into materials such as metals alloys, plastic filament for 3D printing, and glass panels for building products.

plastic ocean

Photo: Shutterstock

“Our new recycling and reforming process has the potential to deliver economic and environmental benefits wherever waste is stockpiled, and is modelled on our recently launched world first e-waste (electronic waste) microfactory which reforms the main materials in things like mobile phones, computers and electronic hardware,” Professor Sahajwalla said.

“The main impediment to deploying these new methods of effective reformation of waste items in this efficient, economically productive and environmentally sustainable way is the lack of real incentive by all governments for industry to adopt them. I think we just need more awareness about this microfactory technology.”

The microfactories consists of a series of small machines and devices that use patented technology to turn discarded products and containers into new and reusable materials. A number of small machines are used for the process and they fit into a small room. The discarded devices and items are first placed into a module to break them down. The next module may involve a special robot to extract useful parts.

The report’s headline recommendations to ban single use plastics by 2023 and to call for a national deposit container scheme are commendable but a solution is available right now.

Another module uses a small furnace to separate the metalic parts into valuable materials, while another one reforms plastic into a high-grade filament suitable for 3D printing. A microfactory can involve one or a series of modular machines and be easily transported or relocated to where a stockpile or suitable site exists.

Costings show an investment in a microfactory can pay off in less than three years. Glass stockpiles alone amount to more than 1 million tonnes a year nationally. In total, Australia produces nearly 65 million tonnes of industrial and domestic solid waste each year.

Professor Sahajwalla said microfactories could not only produce high performance materials and products, but eliminated the need for expensive machinery, saved on the extraction from the environment of yet more natural materials, and reduced the impact of burning waste and dumping it in landfill.

“Rather than export our rubbish overseas, the microfactory technology has the potential for us to export valuable materials and newly manufactured products instead,” Professor Sahajwalla said. “Through the microfactory technology, we can enhance our economy and be part of the global supply chain by supplying more valuable materials around the world and stimulating manufacturing innovation in Australia.”

Images and vision: Photos and video of the microfactories and laboratories where the research and technology has been developed are available via the contact listed below.

UNSW SMaRT website: