She has been called Australia’s ‘waste queen’, ‘a whirlwind of ideas and energy’ and ‘a magnetic personality on a mission’. For Sydney-based Professor Veena Sahajwalla, a globally recognised materials scientist, engineer and an inventor revolutionising recycling science, the journey started in Mumbai, her place of birth. “I will always be very fascinated with how you can get any pair of shoes repaired there,” she reflects.
It is, she adds, a habit that has continued here in Sydney. “My local shoe repairer knows me very well. I actually love doing that because there is that sentimental attachment to a product.”
As an environmentalist and someone who believes that the resources of this planet are finite, Sahajwalla brings that degree of emotion into her actions right from the fundamental level. “We cannot throw away our old items just because we’ve become tired of them and we want new things. The planet cannot sustain that style of living. It is our individual responsibility for a collective and better future for the planet,” she says.
It is a formidable goal. From automotive wastes to electronic waste to food packaging wastes, Sahajwalla sees opportunity in trash.
After obtaining her B.Tech. degree in Metallurgical Engineering from IIT Kanpur, Sahajwalla completed her Master’s degree in Metals and Materials Engineering at the University of British Columbia and her PhD on Materials Science and Engineering at The University of Michigan.
Today, as a materials scientist and engineer and founding Director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney, she is producing a new generation of green materials, products and resources made entirely, or primarily, from waste.
Sahajwalla began by experimenting with materials such as polythene in the form of old shampoo and detergent bottles in a burning furnace, and moved on to her signature steel production process in which old car tyres and discarded plastics serve as a substitute for coke and coal.
After three years of lab work, she joined hands with OneSteel, Australia’s largest steel manufacturer, to put into practice her idea of using shredded tyres as a partial replacement for coal and coke. By 2013, OneSteel (now Arrium) had not only prevented 1.6 million tyres from going into landfill but it significantly saved the company energy costs too.
In 2018, she launched the world’s first e-waste microfactory and in 2019 she launched her plastics microfactory, a recycling technology breakthrough.
Sahajwalla and her innovative team are now opening new doors to manufacturing.
The latest is a partnership between UNSW and Mirvac, an Australian property group with operations across the property investment, development, and retail services landscape. In an industry first, they are making apartments partly using waste materials which could revolutionise home construction industry.
Sahajwalla acknowledges that in this particular work, the support from the NSW government’s physical sciences funding has made the whole commercialisation journey surrounding the green ceramics works possible. “It allowed us to make a lot of prototypes and show that it is absolutely possible to build up scale and capacity. It also allowed us to showcase that these kinds of products that are made from waste materials are high performance products.”
There are really no limits to the work that one can do if industries are committed to trialling new ideas, says Sahajwalla, adding, “Molycap and Mirvac are two businesses very much committed to sustainability, making the journey so much more easier.”
“We know that in our business environment there is always a risk when you start with new technologies and when you are working on R&D there is no guarantee of success, but that is exactly why a lot of these businesses have to be really congratulated on the fact that we as researchers can do the work in the labs. When we’ve got industry partners who are willing to take up the next step, together we can make a real difference. The relationship between industry and research is very important.”
Sahajwalla’s vision and methodology is quite straightforward. When one starts thinking about waste materials as resources having more than one life or purpose, say, tyres or textiles, the alignment between recycling and manufacturing becomes a whole new way of looking at waste materials. “We should be talking about this as a resource, as a material that can be harnessed over and over again, not as a problem. And so in a way, yes, there are challenges in finding your solutions but if we can start to address the science that underpins all of that, then it’s no longer a problem, it’s a brand new opportunity.”
And that is where she sees the shift happening. “We have seen examples of government and industry support to deliver outcome. It’s a genuine partnership. That’s where a big shift has occurred in Australia, and it is very inspiring to see so many industries big and small wanting to be innovative, wanting to be brave and see waste as a resource and as an opportunity.”
Asked if she can briefly explain what handling waste for beginners is, for the benefit of our readers, Sahajwalla says, “What people can do in a much more proactive way is find out what council services are. There is a lot of infrastructure in place that local councils have, so the next step is how we really make it easier for councils to do something meaningful with it. That means we’ve got to play our part and proactively look at what’s the right thing to do, looking up at websites of councils in your area to access the different services.”
On the question of when Australia can reach a zero-waste economy, Sahajwalla says, “We should probably look at it this way: even if something doesn’t have an obvious solution today, like an electronic device or old CDs, we shouldn’t see them as landfill material but rather think collectively that this needs to have a solution that needs to be developed. So, it means that we can achieve zero waste in the long term because products will constantly evolve. It’s about then saying it becomes a waste if I put them in landfill but if I find a place where I can drop these off (and I think councils have drop off points) then we are collectively making sure that none of these will end up in landfill. That’s really the next step for all of us to take. Of course, local and state governments have to play a part but that’s exactly the point—it’s a collective responsibility.”
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It is not surprising that Sahajwalla has an impressive list of awards to her name. Some of these include the Eureka Prize (2005), ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship (2014), Winner of Australian Innovation Challenge (Overall Winner) for “Green Steel” (2012).
And what keeps Sahajwalla going is her consistent pledge towards making small contribution as a tiny step towards equity. “You think about all of those examples in places like India where you’ve got kabariwallahs (trash collectors) and people who are working in rather difficult conditions, and imagine that a future will come where people will be respected for the work they do. It’s an important service… To me, in all of this is a bigger picture, it’s ultimately about equity. A better future will only be a better future if it is better for everyone, not just for some people.”
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She has been called Australia’s ‘waste queen’. For Sydney-based Prof @VeenaSahajwalla, a globally recognised materials scientist, engineer & an inventor revolutionising recycling science, the journey started in Mumbai. #TheIndianSunhttps://t.co/Mi8aWoHaK9
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) March 22, 2021