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How to create wealth from waste and reduce our landfill

While Australia’s rich stocks of raw mineral resources have contributed to the nation’s wealth and given us a competitive advantage we are also one of the highest waste producing nations in the world (on…

Not a pile or rubbish but a rich urban mine of recyclable material. Shutterstock/kanvag

While Australia’s rich stocks of raw mineral resources have contributed to the nation’s wealth and given us a competitive advantage we are also one of the highest waste producing nations in the world (on a per capita basis).

In 2009-10 we dumped 21.6 million tonnes of household and industrial waste in 918 landfill sites around Australia. Of all the waste we produced we recycled only about half (52%).

But can we do things differently? Can we change our production and consumption patterns to generate wealth from what we currently designate as waste?

The potential exists

Consider e-waste, which is the old TVs, DVDs, computers, household appliances and other electrical goods that we throw away. This type of waste has emerged as one of our fastest growing waste streams but only about 10% is recovered or recycled.

Obsolete computers and accessories shouldn’t end up in landfill when they can be recycled for metals and materials. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

But e-waste devices also include valuable metals such as copper, silver, gold, palladium and other rare materials which means they are also ending up in landfill.

By 2008 we had already sent some 17 million televisions and 37 million computers to landfill, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

But if 75% of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually could be recycled we could save 23,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, 520 mega litres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.

Another way of looking at this is to compare gold yielded from an open pit mine with that from discarded electrical goods. Mining yields 1 to 5 grams of gold for every one tonne of ore. From the same quantity of discarded mobile phones and computer circuit boards, you can extract 350 grams and 250 grams respectively.

The new urban mines

In a world increasingly addressing issues of sustainability, it’s no wonder that such end-of-life products are now being seen as urban mines – valuable sources of above-ground metals which can be recycled and reused.

That is the concept of the “circular economy”.

There is already some extensive recycling activity in Australia, helped by schemes such as the national Product Stewardship framework which encourages people to reduce waste.

But we still lose significant amounts of valuable and recyclable materials into landfill and park valuable metals in tailings and spoil heaps.

Given Australia is already a global leader in primary resource production from the ground, it is timely to think about how we might also adapt and grow our expertise to mine and process above ground stocks and remain at the cutting edge.

Can we lead the urban mining revolution?

Globally, there is already growing capacity and innovation in recycling.

Some recycling of rubbish is being done, such as at the Visy recycling plant in Brisbane, but we can do more. AAP Image/Dan Peled

New forms of manufacturing and business models are being developed that integrate secondary manufacturing of recycled materials.

So the potential is there to diversify and adapt Australia’s skills and technologies to support the new forms of processing and manufacturing in this circular economy.

Why don’t we do this?

A major challenge lies in the ability to persuade people and industry to see waste products as a resource rather than a liability. We need to create more responsive manufacturing, processing innovation and new business models around recycling.

This will challenge the way we currently operate as a nation and ask us to rethink how we relate to consumer markets around the world.

We can’t keep relying solely on our raw mineral resources. Some commentators are now discussing materials scarcity as a bigger issue than energy scarcity.

This scarcity is driving a move towards a circular economy – one in which the value created by inputs (materials, energy and labour) is extended by enabling a material life that goes beyond product life. So we go from mineral to metal, to product, back to metal and so on.

By understanding such economies and value of how this chain operates in Australia, we can begin to understand, at scale, the barriers and opportunities to more sustainable consumption and production in a resource limited future.

Looking for a new solution

That’s why CSIRO and its university partners led by University of Technology Sydney are today launching the Wealth from Waste Research Collaboration Cluster to do just this.

Too much rubbish - Australia leads the way in waste per capita. Waste Atlas

Although the technological challenges of complex materials processing are fascinating, it is innovative business models that hold the key to unlocking the wealth in our waste.

We also need to understand more about the cultural norms to see what needs changing.

Clean Up Australia found that around 14 million phones sit unused in drawers or cupboards, that’s equivalent to almost one unused phone for every two people in the country.

Although 90% of the materials within a mobile phone can be re-used, globally less than 10% of mobile phones are actually recycled. So why when we already have a solution do we not act to recycle our waste?

The research programme will be about finding new ways of doing things that accommodate our relatively small domestic materials market and challengs the mindset that size matters when it comes to complex materials processing.

If we wish to add urban mining to our global mining reputation then we need to couple research, industry and policy transitions for success in a future where recycling is an integral component of resource productivity, not a niche specialism.

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39 Comments sorted by

  1. Liz Bassett

    logged in via Facebook

    Good. And let's start with container deposit legislation.

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  2. Henry Verberne

    Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

    It is clear to me that there is an imperative, in the interests of sustainability, to become much more focused on the recovery of valuable material and (less valuable material to reduce landfill).

    The challenges to be faced are more a matter of process and organisation rather than technological.

    I also think we need to discourage waste of all kind and so must have container deposit legislation and the deposit needs to be substantial. A dollar would be good starting point, indexed annually.

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    1. Martin Quirke

      Architect (UK Registered), PhD Candidate at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      Besides the main points here about material and financial sustainability, and of course the political catch-cry of job creation; such schemes would also begin to deal with some serious long term public health issues resulting from heavy toxin contamination entering water supplies and food chains.
      Also in the case of container deposit schemes we would also begin to stem the negative health outcomes associated with over consumption of sugary / caffeinated drinks.

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  3. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    This is a really good idea. It is hard though, and we have a government now that lacks sophisticated policy thinking that could drive this. There is actually quite a long supply chain between cupboards or drawers and holding recycled metals from phones or electronics. That is likely to be the commercial challenge, and politically, legislation would have to assist that, like product stewardship laws.

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  4. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Although I agree with the thrust of the article, I feel that the problems facing recycling of complex products is far more complex than the author suggests.

    Firstly, while there is more gold in E waste than the earth, a gold extraction plant would devour Australia's E waste within a few days whereas a plant out in the Kimberley can process its lode for years - the capital investment in an E waste gold extraction plant could not be profitable or justified.

    Secondly, processing E waste releases…

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    1. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      So we should do nothing then Gerard? All too hard?

      We're all doomed to failure if we accept your defeatist views.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      "... while there is more gold in E waste than the earth, a gold extraction plant would devour Australia's E waste within a few days whereas a plant out in the Kimberley can process its lode for years - the capital investment in an E waste gold extraction plant could not be profitable or justified."

      Simple. Just take all the discarded mobile phones to your friendly local gold mine, and add them to the ore going into the crusher.

      When I was working at a nickel ore treatment plant, one of my jobs was to report on how much metal would be recovered from various waste residues that the business was offered by waste commodity traders. In particular, I conducted testwork to determine the point at which the waste was added to the process, and at what addition rate.

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    3. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard, there is also the issue of transport of recycled products and the emissions involved in that - (as well as road damage and road safety costs). If we have trucks built and dedicated to those processes there are more emissions generated by that as well.

      Despite that, I believe the alternatives of continuing landfill are not acceptable.

      Unfortunately, I do undertsand what you are saying about the disconnection and dissonance involved between the expressed attitude of people versus actual behaviour.

      But I think that we can mitigate against the problems of excessive waste and related fuel use and other resources, and related emissions.

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    4. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      I didn't say to do nothing Mr Verberne, I merely pointed out that the article's implication that there are simple recycling measures available for complex electronic and mechanical devices is not quite correct.

      Remember that the 14 million mobile phones take up the same space as the earth excavated for a single back yard swimming pool.

      It would be best to concentrate our recycling on the biggest rubbish generators such as domestic home building and renovation. Most home builds generate up to 100 tonnes of non recycled rubbish which dwarfs the 14 million mobile phone issue.

      It is going to be fun in the future.

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    5. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to peter mackenzie

      I accept your comment Mr MacKenzie.

      Dumping millions of tonnes of recyclable material into land fill annually is a one way trip to disaster.

      One thing I have noticed as the price of dumping of rubbish has risen in Melbourne is the amount of illegal dumping increasing, either trucks dumping on vacant lots or individuals leaving mattresses and old computer monitors in our industrial area.

      Gerard Dean

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    6. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard, "Such an explosion in population is simply unsustainable" - exactly! Our human population is at the root of all our problems. We breed like rabbits, then wonder why stuff in finite supply escalates in price and declines in availability. On our current trajectory of population growth and pollution growth, just providing potable water to our people is going to be a good trick in the near future. Homo Stupidus stupidus.

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    7. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Gerard, no need for the "Mr Mackenzie" unless you prefer it that way.

      I am sure you are correct about more illegal dumping in Melbourne and I suspect it is Australia-wide. No easy answer to that one either.

      Unfortunately, we regularly hear politicians saying "I/we are fully committed to ........... better health/housing/education/road safety etc etc", but it doesn't equate to them doing everything reasonably possible to make these things happen. And as you say, we mere citizens similarly can be fully committed in our own minds to the environment/ not speeding/eating healthier etc, then do exactly the opposite.

      But of course not me. Though I did celebrate my commitment to better health and diet by eating creamy banoffee cake and chocolate muffins with cream at morning tea!

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    8. Brad Withyman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      I agree Gerard. Same said for plastics recycling. The smoke screens around recycling need to clear before we start looking at ways to cash in on E-Waste.

      The alternative to 'do nothing' is used by those who simply can't think of better and more sustainable ways to reduce waste.

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    9. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      It is also a lot more than just mobile phones as the article made clear. We are talking about computers, printers and other electronic devices. They occupy a lot more space than the phones. Plus they contain rare earths and high value metals.

      An increasing population only increases the case for a more organised and effective recycling of such materials.

      I do take your point that we also have a problem with home builds but that shows the extent of our society's sustainability problems.

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    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Kenneth Mazzarol

      You are correct about the expensive option. If by some quirk of fate, a process was found to recycle our rubbish very profitably, you know that within a few weeks there would be companies staking claims over old landfill sites and backhoes attacking rubbish piles everywhere.

      As long as virgin material from coal, oil and minerals is cheaper and easier to convert to finish products than recycled materials, recycling will be a small player.

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    2. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      That is actually the issue and why we will leave recycling aka "urban mining" as just a fringe activity. If you listen to Harald Sverdrup's TED talk he said a truckload of mobile phones has 200x the gold as the equivalent volume of the best ore. That doesn't sound not worthwhile.
      But if it's just a few trucks then it will just have to be stored for later.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2OzyNpPe5s
      But we do have to start somewhere. before it's too late.

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    3. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to John Doyle

      Also this video is also a big proponent of the "Circular Economy" mentioned in the main article

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  5. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    "we could save 23,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, 520 mega litres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy" - how are these figures calculated? Do they represent the quantities embodied in making those products in the first place, or are they the quantities embodied in the whole chain of mining and manufacture? Either way, if original manufacture is included, surely we won't 'save' those quantities, because we will have to expend similar quantities to manufacture new products from the reclaimed materials.
    On another matter, do we have ways of recycling the hydrocarbons represented by the plastics in e-waste? Oil is a finite resource, so repurposing products manufactured from it seems like a good idea.

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    1. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Doug, there are methods to reprocess plastics into fuels, I believe.
      I think there are some smaller scale plants in the US, but don't know about any larger scale efforts anywhere.

      I have also seen a claim of a very small scale (desk-top size) machine for doing same, but have suspicions it could be as honest as the regular big lottery wins in my junk email. Happy to be proven wrong.

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    2. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to peter mackenzie

      Peter, that's interesting about reprocessing options for plastics - I had hoped there was something in the wings. A desktop machine to turn plastic into fuel? Too good to be true, methinks. We are smothering the planet in discarded plastics and it would be great to be able to put a value on that. Imagine all the scavengers furiously recovering plastic bags, fishing nets and all our other industrial wastes. A clean world - goodness, what a good idea!

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    3. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Doug, have a look at Plastic2Oil as they claim good things. I think the idea is to use some of the recovered oil to run the plant. There would still havge to be emissions, still haulage costs and further emissions, but we do that with landfill already.

      As for the desktop recycle machine, yeh I suspect the catalyst for conversion was good ol' fashioned bullshit!

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    4. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to peter mackenzie

      Yep, the good ol' universal catalyst <grin>. Had a llok at http://www.plastic2oil.com/site/home and it certainly is interesting. If demand could be ramped up enough to encourage scavengers to start mining and recovering all our plastic waste, we would be a long way down the track toward a plastics-free environment. Imagine a flotilla of craft vacuuming the ocean gyres, to suck up all the floating wastes - what a difference that could make! More power to JBI.

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    5. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Good, Doug..

      I have had a few dreams about working through the report massive spread of waste in the (Pacific?) ocean.

      But I am no entrepreneur, just a researcher and advocate for change.

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    6. peter mackenzie

      Transport Researcher

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Thanks Doug,

      I'll look at that and probably give a very big sigh! I Never been very good at choosing ignorance/denial as alternatives to harsh realities.

      cheers

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    7. Brad Withyman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      I keep asking the same ?. I guess its taking the world by education first? I guess virgin minerals are just too cheap at present. Its the same old arguments. Lucky that the shit lasts upto a 1000 years. We can mine it in the future.

      Don't let the kids say we never left them anything of value.

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    8. Martin Quirke

      Architect (UK Registered), PhD Candidate at University of Newcastle

      In reply to peter mackenzie

      Problem is, the majority of the plastic waste gathered at the gyres, over time has become less like the easily trawl-able flotilla of intact bottle and bags that we might imagine, but more of a murky soup of confetti sized particles. This, of course makes incredibly more challenging to collect.

      Jeremy Irons gives a good intro to the complexities we are dealing with: http://www.trashedfilm.com/

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    9. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Martin Quirke

      Martin, yes the degraded plastics are problematic and also much more dangerous to marine life. Perhaps putting a value on the plastic would prompt people to find ways to recover it even when degraded and broken up. Same applies to plastics broken down to small fragments and mixed with beach sand: a challenge and an opportunity for someone.

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  6. Ross Barrell

    Aikido Student

    Great article. Timely and interesting.

    It seems that we can consider Renew, reuse, recycle, repurpose and remanufacture - and maybe achieve prosperity without growth.

    Hmmm... Waiting for the Conservatives to dump on me... :)

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  7. Brad Withyman

    logged in via Facebook

    All sounds good, although the plug for the CSIRO program is only researching metals found in waste! Hardly deals with the real issues of waste....PLASTIC!!! Perhaps Anna could suggest some other programs that are looking into business models that can turn plastic waste into cash without the need to reprocess it back into plastic granules.??

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  8. Alex Serpo

    Garbologist

    It's not a bad start - but I don't really understand why we need a bunch of academics to sit around and argue about what the barriers are to recycling. We know what the barriers are;

    1) We need higher, and consistent national landfill levies
    2) These levies need to go into building recycling infrastructure
    3) We need to keep as much of our manufacturing and processing capacity on shore as possible
    4) We need to drive national landfill consolidation and performance, particularly in Queensland

    There you go. Can I have a research grant now?

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    1. Brad Withyman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alex Serpo

      Yes Alex, you're right.

      Why do we need Academics to confirm what we already know?

      Well,I think its always been like that! Academics get funding to demonstrate how, where and what should be done. What's more concerning, the research usually has a hidden agenda to support a particular business, industry or technology that is looking for investment or Gov funding or support via policy. History proves this time and time again.

      Without Academia, Government couldn't make decisions on just about anything. They need Academia to validate just about everything they approve. Academia are the conduit between industry and Government, and they sure as hell exploit every chance they get to profit from it.

      Meanwhile, there are those of us who just get on with the business of waste reduction market based innovations and solutions. I think we're called ecopreneurs.

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    2. Alex Serpo

      Garbologist

      In reply to Brad Withyman

      Brad - I'm an "ecopreneur" - but I confess I really don't like the term. Reducing pollution shouldn't be viewed as a special or additional part of the economy. It should be part and parcel of business as usual.

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    3. Brad Withyman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alex Serpo

      I'm hearing you. It should be part of doing business, but sadly, its not. We need more pioneers putting these practices into business and making then successful. Then we hope the rest will follow. I'm looking seriously in the upcycling approach to plastic packaging, Being virgin food grade quality, it has more uses than I can even think of.

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