Veena Sahajwalla, Mumbai-born alumnus of IIT-Kanpur, is currently inventor and Professor of Materials Science at the Faculty of Science, UNSW (University of New South Wales), Australia. She established its well-known Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology.

Her SMaRT Centre team is pioneering ‘microrecycling science’ that aims to decentralise e-waste recycling solutions that fit into a circular rather than linear economy. She has demonstrated the viability of ‘mining’ our overburdened landfills to harness the wealth of useful elements like carbon, hydrogen and materials like silica, titanium dioxide and metals embedded in our waste.

She was the recipient of the 2011 Pravasi Bharatiya Samman , the highest honour conferred on overseas Indians, and continues to visit India on a professional and personal level. She tells BusinessLine that society has reached a tipping point, and 2020 is a make or break year in which governments must step up their engagement and commitment towards waste management.

You have added new dimensions to the science of recycling. Could you explain the most promising possibilities that are ideal for developing nations such as India?

The focus on waste and recycling really kicked up last year after China banned countries from sending their unwanted materials there. Suddenly, other countries across South-East Asia started these bans too because they realised the materials often just ended up rotting in piles and creating a mess.

Policymakers here at home too started to realise we were claiming a lot more recycling than was actually happening and that something urgently needs to be done. What we need are innovative, new ways to deal with our unwanted materials, and I am not talking about burning these for energy because this merely destroys those materials and their value for ever.

In fact, India already has kabadiwallas (waste collectors) and scavengers working at the grassroots level, collecting and separating waste, and that is the biggest advantage the country has.

What we, and the government, need to do is give them the technology, deploy microfactories and teach them how it works. What will happen is that, instead of burning that waste, these workers will be able to work in a sustainable and safe environment without producing any kind of toxic waste. This way, we are not displacing the kabadiwallas and scavengers. Instead, we are upskilling them, and creating safer, more viable job opportunities. We need to focus on building circular economy value resources by keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible. It is ‘circular’ because unwanted materials and items get re-purposed, reused or reformed in some way. In a linear economy, things get made, used and disposed of. Closing the loop to reduce as much as possible the disposing of unwanted items is the aim of a circular economy. And in the process people working across the value chain should also be absorbed in productive, meaningful ways.

Your idea of ‘mining the landfill’ seems very innovative and if done could solve a big problem. But how easy or difficult is it to do such a thing on the ground?

E-waste generally contains 40 per cent plastic, which is usually burnt, adding to air pollution, and the inventions we offer are a cost-effective solution to one of the greatest environmental challenges of our age. They deliver new job opportunities — to our cities as well as rural areas. There is no reason to burn plastic. Our idea is to create microfactories that can create filament with plastic by compressing the waste in a temperature-controlled area.

I visit India regularly to meet industry, academia and government officials to discuss our inventions, especially to deploy a microfactory in Delhi’s Seelampur — the capital’s digital graveyard that has piles of discarded mobile phones and computers.

How exactly would it be possible to harness waste from the landfills and recycle it? Are there any technology-based solutions?

Yes, our solution of setting up modular microfactories, which would require a 50-sq mt area and can be located wherever waste is stockpiled. The science behind these factories would be brought in from our own research and work in this area. These microfactories are affordable, can be built locally, and will help empower the people working with waste. Such microfactories would create products by using e-waste and then sell the filaments (to) make value-added products using 3D printing. This way, we are not only making our environment more liveable, but we are also creating sustainable job opportunities for people at the lowest level of the chain.

Such a solution fits in perfectly with the Prime Minister’s Make in India and Swachh Bharat Mission. For such initiatives, initial capital expenditure is important as a small operator will simply not have enough money to do something and, hence, if the government is looking at the Make in India campaign, then finance and the initial capital expenditure is important.

The ultimate aim with this technology is to create jobs and enhance social and economic outcomes not just for local communities but more broadly as a nation because it contributes to new supply chains, in addition to helping solve our immediate waste challenges.

You have been involved in the micro-recycling of e-waste and received various fellowships for this. Could you explain the concept in some detail?

Based on the foundation of microrecyling science, we created microfactories at UNSW to transform waste into sustainable materials and products, including where waste is not recycled in the traditional manner. The future of global manufacturing lies in small-scale, decentralised microfactories that will enable communities to produce many of the products, materials and resources they need locally by using resources largely derived from waste.

This emerging industrial revolution will profoundly disrupt today’s centralised, vertically integrated model of production. For example, silica from e-waste and carbon from end-of-life car tyres can make industrial grade nanoscale silicon carbide for industry use through microrecycling.

With new technology to transform waste into sustainable materials and products, creating new local manufacturing capabilities, today’s model of mining finite virgin raw materials in far-flung locations and centralised materials processing will seem inconceivably unsustainable.

Economies of scale will always exist and have a role, but we have to now talk about new ‘economies of purpose’ which aims to achieve sustainable outcomes where the opportunity cost to the environment of inaction is greater than the appetite of society and longer-term survival.

The science and technology of microfactories makes it possible for a complicated waste stream to produce value-added materials which can then feed into different industrial supply chains for manufacturing products.

The commercial scale microfactories at UNSW currently convert discarded glass, textiles and plastics into engineered, hybrid-ceramic materials that are currently being made into furniture and other applications for the built environment.

You have established UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology. What are the key projects that the students are working on that could make a substantial difference to combating climate change?

All Australian state governments signed up to an agreement recently to ban the export from Australia of four key waste streams: plastics, glass, paper and rubber tyres. This has spurred all levels of government to think hard about how to shift from offshoring much of our non-perishable waste without letting this result in more and more landfill.

Current MicrofactorieTM capability can convert the materials from electronic waste into valuable filament for 3D printing and into valuable metal alloys. It can also turn discarded textiles, glass and plastics into engineered, hybrid ceramic materials, and we are getting greater commercialisation of existing MicrofactorieTM technology as key to helping address the waste crisis and boost manufacturing.

We had the federal environment minister Sussan Ley in September last year to launch the new, commercial-scale MicrofactorieTM built at UNSW, and we have been awarded $2 million from the NSW government to set up and run the new NSW Circular Economy Innovation Network.

UNSW has also been awarded their second Australian Research Council (ARC) Industrial Transformation Research Hub grant, this time $3.3 million, with similar contributions from industry, to develop microrecycling of battery and consumer wastes. We try to reach out through media interviews, columns and engagements, and speak at events and conferences across the world, including at some of the biggest companies.

UNSW is known to be very conscious of the green agenda. Have you been able to change curricula in other subjects and introduce the sustainability perspective?

UNSW is consistently ranked the highest among Australian universities for its science & technology department, and prides itself on its strong focus on linking academics with the real world. Our students benefit directly as they are able to work hands-on with so many of the projects our faculty and department are involved with. Also, the university’s environmental management programme in the social science department is a great favourite with international students.