From waste recycling to green manufacturing - the journey of a pioneering 'recyclist'
Updated: Jan 9
Professor Veena Sahajwalla has received international recognition for her work in the waste management and recycling innovation. She is also the founding director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Her work primarily pertains to the concept of green manufacturing which deals with recycling products in a sustainable way. She is a pioneer of recycling science and works towards building environmentally sustainable manufacturing practices. Professor Veena was also awarded the Eureka Award in 2022 for her path-breaking Polymer Injection Technology to revolutionise the steel manufacturing sector, resulting in the practice of developing green steel.
The 2022 Eureka Awards Winner, Professor Veena Sahajwala
Aayushi Sharma: I would like to start by asking you, why do you think there is a need for a sustainable approach to waste recycling?
Veena Sahajwalla: Yes, we use a lot of products in our day to day lives and there is a shelf life of all these products, however after their use we tend to simply discard them. I have often noticed that people end up throwing away a lot of products that may still have potential to be used in terms of the basic resources they are made of. Lots and lots of products we discard on a day to day basis but there is a lot of potential in those products still and they can be reused in various ways. Just because the product in itself has lost its usage, that does not mean that the materials have also become redundant as well. We have also been engaging with the local level communities at the grass roots and have employed people to work on waste recycling products, so there is a generation of job opportunities as well. As I say, waste is an untapped resource waiting to be harnessed.
AS : So what kind of products do you cater to when it comes to sustainable waste recycling?
VS: There can be products made out of any type of waste material. Such as the tiles I can show you, we call them ‘green ceramics’. We make these tiles by combining the glass bottles and they can be used anywhere in your home. There is a lot of plastic waste that can be recycled into usable products.
AS: Something else that I am curious to know about is how did you start working in this sector?
VS: So, I am an Engineer and ever since I was young I used to observe people easily use and throw away the products that they don’t need anymore. I was very fascinated by how easy it was for people to get rid of things. I realised very early on that there was so much potential in any kind of waste and as an inventor I then embarked on the journey to develop unique ways of developing products from the same materials. It was also interesting to me how sustainable it was to make things at home and not having to buy from outside. Same is true for the products we invent and create now, which are made from the least expensive recyclable material and so the production cost is very less in terms of the raw materials. Instead of having to import many valuable products from outside, such as these ceramic tiles, we can just build them over here while also generating employment at the local level.
AS: As you have now mentioned the engagement at the local level and creating local jobs, I want to know how you would explain a concept as technical as ‘green manufacturing’ to the common people who may not be as informed about it or may not be as receptive to the idea.
VS: It largely comes down to the acknowledgment that we as people need to do something for the environment. If there is this consciousness, it gets very easy to explain such concepts. People generally have the understanding that they need to do something for the environment but they also need products in order to fulfil the basic daily needs. The large perception is that environmentally-friendly actions and product manufacturing are two mutually exclusive concepts. We are here to explain that they need not be. Which is why “green manufacturing” can combine the two factors together to show that the manufacturing of products can also be environmentally friendly because we are recycling the products in a way that it reduces the overall carbon footprint because of using the same raw materials.
AS: My next question to you is about an aspect of your work that gained a lot of recognition. I want to ask you about your invention of the polymer injection technology and how that has brought about a revolution in the steel production industry.
VS: The steel-making industry is primarily dependent on the use of coal. Our idea was to use the waste rubber tyres as the raw material for the production of this steel which would eventually reduce the dependence on coal. Which is why it is also called the “green steel” as there is a usage of waste plastic and tyres to create the hydrogen that is needed for steel production and it is also more energy efficient.
AS: I want to talk about this one category of waste that gets accumulated in our homes a lot and that is the E-waste, so what is your take on recycling e-waste in a sustainable manner?
VS: A lot of this would also depend upon the policies of the government in this regard. This is because people are generally sceptical of getting rid of a lot of electronic waste, especially storage devices, due to their stored information. So if there is some assurance that a part of the e-waste that has a lot of personal data stored would not be misused or recycled in a threatening way then it can also become a great source of raw materials for the other products. The raw materials used to create electronic devices can be further explored for sustainable waste management.
AS: You have brought up an important point, I want to ask your opinion on what can be done at the policy level when it comes to waste management?
VS: The Governments can play a facilitating role and provide resources needed to develop research and innovation in this field. The government sponsored grants are very important in this regard. I would like to specifically mention the Australian Research Council that provides grants for the Research and Development Projects in various fields, we have fortunately been a part of their Grants programme. So, the tangible assistance that the governments can provide at the larger level is through providing grants and investing in environmentally sustainable projects.
AS: So how do you think that this culture of waste management can have an effect on the day to day lives of the people?
VS: So when we talk about the communities at the local level, there are so many people who live next to the waste dump yards. The irregular waste disposal has made it very inconvenient for the people to live near these places for long periods of time. There is a question of hygiene as well. So one of the major things that we aim to do is to clear out these dump yards of the waste materials that can be put to better use in terms of their recycling and this also helps us generate space for creating job opportunities at the local levels. We have many microfactories associated with the Smart Center where we carry out such manufacturing activities by employing the people of these local communities. So it does have a lot of impact on the daily lives of the people.
AS: Are there any downsides to managing waste and recycling it in this way?
VS: So when we are making products in this way, the first thing that we need to cater to is that it should work properly. We are recycling the waste out of the products that have already been used so many times and so there is a need for us to check that the raw materials are properly reusable and the final product is of utility for the customers. For example these green ceramic tiles, for us to be able to claim that this product works, we should first test it in the right environment to be sure of the claim. So this is a major rule that we must stick by and it may sometimes be a challenge for the producers of course. This is also because there is a lot of labour and work that is put in on the manufacturing of these products and so there is a need for greater accountability.
AS: I will again refer to your point of the government level engagement, how do you think that avenues can be created for cooperation among the communities of India and Australia as well as the state level policies? Do you see any congruence in terms of cooperation among these two countries in the scientific sector and also in Climate Action?
VS: So there is a space for the communities to collaborate and one way to do that is to merge the contribution of the government and that of the industry. When the government can provide with the much needed Research Grants, the industries can also invest in the projects such as these. So a cooperative model wherein the government and the industry together pools in the resources needed for such projects, would work very efficiently. This is because the industry would work for the people and develop research as well as products by catering to the needs and requirements of the people while the government would provide the necessary resources that would add to the quality of the manufacturing.
AS: With this we have reached the end of the interview, thank you so much Professor Veena for sitting with me and taking the time out for this interview.
VS: You're welcome! Thank you very much for conducting this interview.