City as above ground mine

With nearly 90% of all Australians living in urban areas (towns or cities of more than 1,000 people) and 3 out of every 5 living in one of our capitals, having informed discussions, deeper research and more habitat-aligned projects feels like a good path to take. People are talking about new ways to enhance city living and revisiting some of the old — and support is growing for more critical reflection on what is good and what is not.


We recently sat down with Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Director of the SMaRT Centre at the University of New South Wales, and Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, to find out more about green manufacturing and her vision for cities as our mines of the future.

GH: Tell us about the ‘green manufacturing’ hub that you have established at UNSW?

VS: The Australian Research Council funded the hub around transforming and recycling waste materials. We have had a successful track record so our success meant that we were experienced in both the science as well as the technological advances. Effectively that has now given us the opportunity to work on a broad range of waste materials and a whole variety of plastics including the complex ones that are found in cars. It’s not just about the plastic bottles we use at home, but the varieties that are of course engineered materials. They obviously do a great job for us but at the end of their life they are very complex to recycle. It really puts us on a much more challenging pathway to see green manufacturing not just recycle, but transform waste that would not have been possible to recycle.

Are you talking about a fundamental shift for the recycling industry?

The transformation into resources is a new way to think. We effectively transform waste into resources and raw materials for manufacturing. Therefore it’s a win, win. Both from a recycling and a waste perspective, but also from a manufacturing perspective where it really enables manufacturers to create sustainable solutions that are good for the environment and good for their business. So, by that definition it becomes green manufacturing.

When did your view on waste as resource begin?

I grew up in Mumbai where it was seen as a pretty normal thing. You see all kinds of materials and products as useful and you don’t tend to throw things away unless you really have to. It could be something like a little glass jam jar used to store pens. Using the example of glass, people would come around collecting end-of-life glass bottles, with the goal that somewhere, in some other manufacturing world somewhere else, they could potentially sell it and make a bit of money along the way. So that was actually another sophisticated form of reuse. You needed that economy on the local scale to see end-of-life products as valuable commodities. I think that is where our thinking has always been. It is a resource and if we have mechanisms in place and people understand there are mechanisms in place, we will be able to get much more active participation. It’s not just the pubs having a few little bottle crushers it’s a family thing.

Is that what made you start thinking about material science, or was it a person or a book…?

I guess if I had to attribute the one thing that got me excited about the work I am doing now, you’d probably have to say yes, that was it. It was that excitement around the fact that there were all of these amazing products and the fascination was that imagination: How was it made, how does it get to what I see as a product in my hand. Even something as simple as glass and shaping glass.

It is about the transformation.

Yes, exactly. Something that can go from silica sand to becoming a glass product, that’s quite a transformation. So, for me, it has been that whole process where it is very much seen first and foremost from a child’s eye. The beauty of various products and the imagination of how it got to become the product we use and, by the same question, what would happen to it now that we have finished using it. It’s almost as if it is thinking about its whole of life, from its birth to the end and almost the reincarnation of it back again. In an interesting sort of way it connects back to Hindu religion of reincarnation. I guess as a child you don’t necessarily know all these things but you realise that these are all beautiful pieces and it’s a pity to just discard things. It was nice growing up in that culture where it was actually valued and it was seen as, yes it’s okay to be collecting glass bottles because someone is going to come and give you a little bit of money for them.

Looking around your office we can see a lot of food packaging plastics that you have collected.

Old habits die very hard! Just yesterday I was joking because one of the things we are talking about is how we recycle our junk food bags. I am guilty as charged of eating a lot of chips and I used to bring my packets into the office and talk to my staff members: “Let’s recycle this one surely the aluminium is going to be really, really useful.” Funny stories lead to: “Yes, I think we are onto something here”. We think we will break the law of normal thinking. Complex products are difficult because they have multiple materials but what we are discovering is the combination can almost be better than the sum of the parts. If each of these were, in their own right, a little bit of cheap plastic or a little bit of dirty metal, they may not have been as recyclable. We are discovering that having the two together might open up a whole realm of possibilities. What are the kinds of compounds we could make and is this compound going to be an exciting product. Of course we have got to be aware of what product it could form and is that product going to be useful to humanity, and could we actually realistically achieve that under realistic conditions. As scientists, and as engineers, we are looking at it from that perspective. Some of that cutting-edge stuff is happening in this space right now.

As a scientist and an inventor how do you see your work re-shaping cities and how we live in them?

We have to make cities the places where we are self-sufficient, in terms of the amount of resources that have already been put into building and infrastructure. That then becomes a future resource for making the next infrastructure. Effectively the cities are themselves acting as above ground mines. If we can see it with those eyes we might be able to create the opportunity for the way it gets designed and the way it gets built, dismantled and reused. Not something we throw away.

What you are talking about is the next generation of recycling and a new way of looking at resources. It’s exciting. How do we get people to start embracing this and behaving differently?

Right now you replace your windscreen glass in your car and the guy who replaces it takes it away and probably doesn’t know what happens to it. A lot of laminated safety glass does end up in landfill because it cannot be recycled in the way that traditional glass is recycled. I think if people make a connection with the products that they use in their lives they can take that responsibility. We are setting up a website where part of the campaign is about encouraging young girls to think about science and technology at a high school level so that they can pursue it as a career option. The other side of that is to link in with electronic products, to understand how complex they are. When we talk about the above ground mines we could well be making the phones in our homes, the computers, the televisions, the building, the cars. It’s asking: “Can we control the future, is it in our hands to control?” I think it is. As people in the community become more aware of what we hold in our hands and how we then make that into a resource. We have a sense of that ownership of what we are producing. Therefore that’s a completely different way to see our contribution and our role, not as waste creators but resource providers. To me that is a nice way for all of us to fulfill that sense that it is not just a one way street of consuming and consuming. The reverse can also be possible by adding value into the resource chain. The thought that a product comes with a little screwdriver to dismantle and pull it apart yourself is really really powerful. We then become contributors to resource.

That would connect people back to science which is often sidelined by the media and certainly by politicians. People seem to be disconnected.

Yes, as if it’s not part of our lives. Yet everything we consume in our daily lives is all a result of science so it’s quite ironic that we are happy to consume the products but then we are not taking the responsibility to be part of the whole loop.

Are there any good examples you have seen?

Even if look around in our own backyard, there are places you can take steel cans for example. There is no reason why we can’t have collection centres everywhere in shopping centres. Why does it have to be out there somewhere. If we can make that as part of the culture, then subsequently any other such solutions that we might develop along the way we can add on. We always see ourselves as consumers and consumerism is seen as such a negative thing. People don’t like the notion of economic growth because of the environmental negatively but I am much more of a rationalist. As an engineer I can understand that you need to consume and you need to make products and that’s what we depend on. We are not going to stop doing that. But on the other hand you can imagine that economic growth comes from the fact that it’s not just a one way street it is also based on what happens to the product at the end of its life. When you talk about the economy and you talk about green manufacturing, economic growth and environmental sustainability go hand in hand.

You have been very successful in helping large organisations change the way they do things. The manufacturing of ‘green steel’ for example. The research was obviously fundamental but then convincing a public company to rethink the way it has done things for a very long time can’t be easy.

Yes, I am really annoying (laughter). Of course you have got to be persistent and you have got to see it from their point of view. They are busy with their regular production, meeting targets and schedules, that’s life for them. They are not into R&D and you need to give them the time to understand the research. It’s okay to take a few goes at trying to explain it because it is complex. By the time you take it to them you have already spent years doing the science yourself in the labs. People are not going to engage instantly in the one meeting. You need to look at it as a continuous process of engagement and I still see it that way because we are constantly making discoveries and developing new ideas and product solutions. Some may be relevant for them and others may be relevant for other businesses. They have to ask the hard-nosed questions of how it is going to be good for my business. And you have got to be able to answer that and not see that as a negative, but see it as a positive. A lot of academics might see that as a negative, but I go well actually that is a positive if they are engaging and asking more questions. Even if you don’t have all the answers you can always come back with the answers later. In a way you have to think from their perspective which can be more challenging because you are used to in your world of science thinking and the business end of it might not be something that comes to you naturally. I think we have been successful because we do understand.

So what you are saying is change doesn’t happen in isolation and to make real impact you need those large companies to be part of it.

Yes, otherwise your research can remain as research and in good publications. How you actually create impact and make a difference in the world is by building those partnerships with businesses who are excited about the science and the discovery and about implementing or trialing the idea. You have to believe in it and you have to understand that it is not going to be an easy path, there are going to be challenges along the way. I guess that’s the way I see it. These are not easy things to implement when you are trying to do things for the first thing in the world and you are trying to convince somebody that this is going to work so it’s not easy for anyone. I guess our role is to make sure that we do the science and we do that very well and we understand, it’s like us having done our homework really well before we talk to other people. I think students and staff at the SMaRT Centre really get that and I make sure that we are all of the same mindset and they are all excited.

Do you think of what you create as a product as well. Is it something that you can sell to business or industry. How does it work?

We do make sure that when we have that partnership with an industry that they have come on board as real partners so that then they are supporting the research off a really strong foundation of science. The added advantage is that if they are the first ones in the world to successfully commercialise it, they are the ones to get the benefit.

So they invest their effort and their own money and in that sense they are real partners?

Yes. In fact all of our industry partners, Brickworks, Jaylon, Tersum Energy and Arrium, committed research funding in addition to the government funding of the Australian Research Council Green Manufacturing Hub. On a rough scale there is an equal partnership between what we are getting from government and what we are getting from industry which I think is quite a fair leaning. A lot of the pure science will benefit the communities so government puts in some money because it benefits the environment if we recycle waste. The businesses are going to benefit so they put in the other half which I think it is a really good model.

How would you describe the way that you work with your industry partners?

The reason why we have all came together as part of a hub is that overarching goal of creating innovative solutions to encourage and promote transformations and recycling through green manufacturing. Whether they are generators of waste, or are somehow involved in waste, or manufacturers making bricks or aggregates or steel products, there is an opportunity for them to use waste as a resource. So whether you are a user or a supplier it doesn’t matter. If we can create that supply chain with all of these people wanting to work together then that is again a win win for both sides. I think that is the reason why they have all been so excited to be part of it. The central theme here is using waste as a resource through the fundamental transformation. You have to be prepared that you are fundamentally transforming it into something that could be completely different and not bear any resemblance to what it started its life as. In a way the whole philosophy of reincarnation.

I think what is exciting too is that you have business people coming into the research lab, directly in contact with science and scientists.

Absolutely. They will always say that this is the most joy that they get in terms of their job. It’s a very holistic engagement which is what I like about our partnerships with industries. It’s not just about us doing our research and delivering a report. They are part of it. They share, they get excited and they challenge us. I think that is important because students get to see and understand why industries are so excited about it which is a further motivation for students. I sometimes tell my students that meetings can be quite intense but don’t worry, remember we are all friends and we do it because we all absolutely love it. I think that is the nice thing, you should be at a friendly level where there are no barriers and you don’t have to hold back. I should be able to talk about a solution and I shouldn’t feel offended if they ridicule me, that’s when it becomes fun, challenging and exciting. Of course we all know that not everything is going to work. It might work really well in the labs but for some other reason commercially it might not make sense and that’s fine. What you are doing along the journey is making new scientific discoveries which help you with a whole range of other ideas.

How nervous were you when the research left the lab and went to OneSteel?

Very. In the early days I was there with students and staff as trials were happening. It was exciting because you were on the spot with the spotlight, but if it didn’t work there is the door. Of course you are prepared for all that but they have been fantastic and I wouldn’t say at any point they were going to show me the door because there has always been that understanding that this is new, it’s research and you have to put in hard work to make things happen and they did their bit to show that all the engineering challenges were dealt with.

Just scaling it up from that to, wow…

Exactly, that’s what I say about the engineering and the practical and commercial challenges. So they had to be totally committed to it and the fact that their commitment and their success has paid off from their point of view and other partners see that this is a good thing to do and as you say, it’s about that engagement between research and academia is a really positive way to do it. Now if we can get local governments and councils involved it would really nicely close the whole equation. People engaged through their councils and at the local level activities happen and to get people in the community involved is fantastic. Very powerful.

We have noticed that councils seem to influence each other as well so if you get one happening it’s likely to spread.

That’s what’s so good about what you guys are doing with Randwick Council. Even if we start with one simple plastic and just make it happen with one thing.

Can you describe your role as Councillor for the Climate Council.

I am probably different to the other councillors as an engineer and somebody who is into technology development. With ‘green steel’ people are starting to understand that connection between saving on energy, saving on raw materials and the complex scenarios of recycling we are undertaking are the kinds of realistic solutions we need to have. I think in a way that my role is to bring in some of those complementary ideas. People on the ground do want to know what they can do and how they can get involved and help out. If ultimately the connection is through products and things that we use then that is a very powerful way for people to feel that they are making a contribution. I really enjoy that kind of engagement with the public and the media has taken a lot of interest in showcasing the work that we have done, from high school kids to the ABC’s Catalyst program.

We were lucky to have you join us for Pecha Kucha Night in Sydney recently. During your talk you raised the role of the designer as key to the work you are doing. Can you describe how design might help connect your research and the community.

If people are going to engage in this whole journey of being resource contributors, as much as consumers, then you need designers to understand and to facilitate that process. So products have to be created in a way that it is possible for us to dismantle and do as much as possible in terms of dealing with the end of life. It would be nice if we could all pull apart our toasters. If designers could design a product and supply a little screw to go with it so you could dismantle it and the steel bits go to that steel recycler. I hope that product designers start to see things that way. Yes we make products really complex and from different materials and sometimes you have to, the reason might be safety for example, and that’s good but if there are enough things that are modular in design then have manufacturers provide replacement parts. If a little piece has broken in my coffee plunger I wish I could just go and buy this little bit because the glass and the rest of it is fantastic. Designers can help manufacturers to see it as a very powerful marketing tool. I would rather go and buy a product if I can get spare parts for, or if I was given the option. I am sure a lot of people would see it that way. So designers playing a role in getting manufacturers to think more like that and to get a competitive advantage. It keeps the customers coming back. With my shoes I will never throw them away, even if it costs me the same to repair them. I have had arguments with the shoe repair guy where he tells me for that amount of money you can buy a new pair. I would rather fix it. If I know that product is something that I can fix that’s a better option for the environment and I know in my mind I am doing the right thing, I am not creating more waste. Why wouldn’t people do it.

We need to change the consumer culture, the mind shift to desire a different kind of product. To desire a product that you can dismantle.

We also need to develop the repair culture. It would be nice if we could have high school kids trained in that. Just like you can get a plumber to come and fix your toilet. Why can I not go to an electrical shop to repair simple things?

The missing link is products designed to be fixed, as apposed to designed to be replaced.

Actually if you make it easy you can do a lot of things yourself at home so the role of designers is actually quite a crucial one. How do you think about design from a completely different perspective. If it is made in a way that is easy for me to dismantle, I have the right tools, I will do it. I think most people regardless of whether you are technically trained or not will enjoy doing that because it is satisfying. Yes, I made this work! If it becomes part of the culture hopefully kids will grow up with that. It is reintroducing it back again.

You do feel got at as well when your iron packs up and you have to throw it away and buy a new one.

Imagine again if it was modular enough that you could separate the metal from the plastic and you could take the metal back to a metal recycler. I tell you a lot of people do make money out of the curbside collection, the councils should know that. A lot of people come around prior to the council and get all the good bits on which they make loads of money. Bits of metal, all sorts of things. So there are people who can make money out of it and they do. Why don’t we just make it official. If we were all asked to take it to a recycler and were paid for the weight people would do it.

What are the big motivators for change?

I think that you have got to make it easy for people. Every shopping centre needs to have a recycling hub. I think there are various ways we can engage with private businesses who are already in the business of recycling but get them to engage at the grassroots level where it happens at the shopping centres or at the community garden. Where people on the weekend go with their families. It has to be connected to what people do as part of their process of consuming. I think definitely there are opportunities for us to connect the three dots, the consumers, with the local councils and the businesses, you can offer the opportunity to recycle and to do stuff so it’s not like the councils have got to do it all themselves. They can engage with businesses.

You are currently working on a lot of projects – bicycle frame recycling, CDs, mobile phones, windscreen glass and the shells from the macadamia industry – what potential opportunities can you see?

At the moment we are working with safety glass – car windscreens, architectural glass, tempered glass – things which are not readily recyclable. The fact that we can make silicon bearing compounds out of it is exciting so I think we have opened up that whole other realm of thinking. That’s an expensive alloy and the fact that you have made it out of that methodology and that waste you are effectively creating a new raw material and opening up new opportunities for new technologies to be born from that. So in a way that is a whole new journey of seeing waste glass as a resource for silicon bearing products.

What are some of the products that you could make with silicon bearing compounds?

Silicon in its own right can be a contributor to electrical steels so you can add silicon as an alloy additive, so transformers for example and electrical components. Broadly speaking there are a whole range of electronic applications for silicon as a component or an additive somewhere else. You are opening up that realm of possibilities and you are actually doing that with something that would have gone to landfill. The power of all of this is opening up new concepts for the future where we may be able to look at micro industries at a local level which to me is a really fantastic way to do things in the future. A lot of the traditional processes are done on a larger scale because it is the ‘economies of scale’, you have to produce mass quantities. But if you are producing something that is value-added enough that you can do it at a smaller scale, micro industries do follow.

Small and local ties in with a lot of things that are happening in the community, like food.

It is never going to be cost effective to put waste on a train and to ship it for hundreds of kilometres so you are going to have to find solutions that treat it at a local level which means you never ever reach the massive mega economies of scale but you don’t have to. In cities you have enough centres. To me these are the factories of the future where everything doesn’t have the be the large, mega factories, they can be micro.

Micro-factories of the future, that’s a really seductive idea.

Of course you have to have social license to operate and you have got to do everything properly and prove that the science works. That’s why you cannot do these things in isolation.

So are they are also jobs of the future?

Yes and you can continue that out into social entrepreneurship which I think is such a good thing to do. You don’t have to do the whole job yourself, you can be part of the process of collecting and thinking about solutions.

This has the ability to transform cities because we can go back to some of the nice things in cities that combine small industry with residential and corporate. It’s that diversity that makes cities liveable. Micro can be affordable if it only takes up small amounts of expensive real estate. Why can’t we integrate micro-factories into the way we design buildings and cities.

What about the mountains of used clothing sent to landfill, is this another area of research?

Textiles are another big area that I think we can really think about because a lot of the synthetics are nothing but polymers. If you talk about the acrylics, the polyesters, put simply they are just plastics. We need to do something about that and to have a device that shreds and breaks it down physically so that we can actually use it for some industrial process. That is something we think we will have a solution for because we can actually use them for the kinds of applications we are looking at. Ultimately it’s got to find a logical home in a manufacturing context that can repurpose it or there is no point in doing all the study in the lab. The last thing you want to do is go off and spend all of your time and energy making a product that’s got no use.

You are not reinventing the wheel.

A lot of times people don’t get that point. They say, “Oh you are making steel out of that, but don’t you have to go to very high temperatures for that.” I say, “Well how do you think steel is made now?” That’s a ‘der’ moment. You can’t make steel at room temperature. We are not changing the way we make steel, we are changing the input raw materials. As far as the steelmaking furnace at OneSteel is concerned that’s exactly the same. We will always need steel so the fact that we are recycling tyres to make steel is a good thing because there are lots of waste tyres and there will always be enough steel production locally to meet our demands. So why can’t we put waste into operations dependent on raw materials and that’s really what we are doing, we are actually replacing coal based raw materials.

What thoughts or actions have you found that reconnect people with the excitement and wonder of science?

I think people have to feel that science has done something for them that would not have been possible otherwise. You have got to have that sense of loyalty and commitment that says gees, without this… You talk about parents whose kids use Cocklear implants for example. How appreciative and that sense of gratitude that if it weren’t for that what an impact it makes on our lives. So if you want to make an impact on peoples lives in whatever way that is I think science has to connect at that level, it has got to make a difference on a personal level. It has to mean something. Whether it happens to be the fact that you are travelling all over the country and you cannot live without your iphone because of your job, or whether you are using a brand new hybrid car with all the latest electronics.

The way it is now, the people who line up outside Apple to get the new iphone don’t think about the science. They appreciate the stuff but they don’t connect with the scientific discovery that made it possible.

Yes, it’s true. As part of the 50/50 campaign we are encouraging young girls to connect with science and the broader philosophy too. We want them to connect science to their daily lives. There is nothing wrong with telling them how a hair straightener works. Let them understand how the iphone works. That is the focus of the 50/50. It is connected to my research on e-waste recycling using electronic products as the means to connect to the Global Product Stewardship Council. It will hopefully help us find product manufacturers who are already doing their bit making it easy to recycle products. If we can showcase some really good examples of how product recycling is already happening then it helps the public understand that there are all of these amazing things in an iphone. I hadn’t realised that there are rare earth magnets in there and some companies are already enabling manufacturers to put them back into use again. That is the message I would like to get out.

I think people connect with the dream in the media, the marketing dream, but they are not connecting with the reality of science. So it’s trying to put those stories back into that loop.

I think that is a really important point. The more we can fill in the gaps in the knowledge between the products and usage of the products and where they come from. It’s like we said, do kids understand where food comes from. We should ask: “Do adults know where products come from?”.

Thank you Professor Sahajwalla.