UNSW’s SMaRT Centre and other innovative companies are tackling the growing problem of e-waste

smart center, venture magazineIn 2016, 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were discarded across the globe, and the number has only risen in the years since. This waste includes cell phones, laptops, refrigerators, and a variety of other electronic devices, of which only about one-fifth were recycled. Australia, whose annual e-waste is projected to hit 223,000 tonnes by 2024, has seen this problem compounded by China’s decision to stop accepting foreign waste earlier this year.

Unrecycled electronics have typically had two options: Sit in a landfill, slowly corroding; or be incinerated for energy. E-waste that is left to (very slowly) deteriorate in landfills can release toxic materials that eventually end up in the soil or water. Incineration has similar toxic effects while also losing the item’s renewable resources forever.

Fortunately for Australia, and the rest of the world, a little Aussie ingenuity has led to some solutions that could not only help the environment but also reshape Australian manufacturing.

SMaRT Solutions

UNSW Sydney’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (the SMaRT Centre) has thus far been the forerunner in an effort to promote sustainability and innovate manufacturing while addressing the issue of e-waste. Simply put, the centre has found new ways to reuse the plastic and glass found in electronic waste.

The solution, according to the SMaRt Centre, lies in microfactories. Launched by Professor Veena Shajwalla in April, the first microfactory is dedicated to reclaiming components of discarded laptops, phones, and more and transforming them for reuse. Targeting discarded timber, plastic, metal, and glass, UNSW plans to develop and test additional microfactories to be used throughout the country.

The microfactories — which can be as small as 50 sq. m — are made up of several smaller modules. E-waste is placed in the first module where it is broken down. A robot in the next module identifies useful parts which are then passed along to a third module where they are converted into valuable material using a “precisely controlled temperature process.”

The valuable materials the SMaRT microfactory recaptures include metal alloys and various micromaterials. Some micromaterials are then reused to produce industrial-grade ceramics, while others that are plastic-based enter a separate module where they are transformed into filament used in 3D printing.

SMaRT microfactories not only increase sustainability, they also have the potential of transforming the manufacturing landscape and enhancing the profitability of production centres located in remote areas or on islands. These facilities currently spend a lot of money having their industrial waste transported. The addition of a microfactory puts the waste to good use while also eliminating the cost of having it taken away from the site.

Other E-Waste Solutions

smart center, venture magazineOf course, the problem of e-waste is too big for one solution. Fortunately, there are other companies stepping up and looking for ways to reduce the amount of electronic waste that continues to pile up in Australia and around the world.

TES ANZ is the Australian and New Zealand branch of TES, a global leader in the recycling of electronic waste. The company has branches throughout eastern Australia and in Auckland, New Zealand. Operating globally, they are in compliance with the EPA, the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive (WEEE), and the Basel Convention Rules.

The company offers end-to-end environmentally compliant solutions throughout the lifecycle of IT products. Services include everything from configuration and installation to the recovery of precious metals and the remarketing of materials.

Similarly, Resource Recovery Australia represents a nation-wide effort to promote recycling, repair, and reuse sites for a variety of materials. In addition to landfills, upcycling and recycling centres, and “a problem waste mobile community recycling service,” Resource Recovery Australia is also the home of: Soft Landing Mattress Recovery, which upcycles old mattresses; Green Connect, which grows fair food and collects waste; and WasteWell, which makes waste reusable for the fabrication industry.

Victoria recently announced plans to free landfills from the burden of accepting e-waste by July 1, 2019. According to the plan, by that time Victorians living in urban areas should be no farther than a 20 minute drive from an e-waste disposal area, while those living in more remote areas should have no more than a 30 minute drive.

A big part of this effort also includes a $2 million battery recycling plant courtesy of Envirostream Australia. The recycling site opened in 2017 as a way to provide an answer for the abundance of disposed batteries in Victoria. Their technology is able to process 40 tonnes per month on each line, recovering significant amounts of lithium that was traditionally recovered after the batteries had been sent overseas for recycling.

Shred-X is yet another e-waste recycling company that is providing solutions to the abundance of e-waste created every day. The company sends out a collection vehicles to collect old computers, phones, servers, and more. Understanding that the products might have personal data, Shred-X can degauss hard drives (eliminate the magnetic field, making the data irretrievable) and physically destroy media and storage devices before recycling each component. This process makes sure your data is safe throughout the process while also helping the environment.

There is no doubt that e-waste is one of the biggest environmental issues facing Australia and the rest of the world — and with more devices becoming obsolete every day, it’s a problem that continues to grow. However, UNSW’s SMaRT Centre and other forward-thinking companies provide a glimmer of hope that real solutions are on the way.