Changing the Concept of Waste: Using Microfactories to Turn Trash Into 3D Printing Filament and Metal Alloys

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Turtles often fall victim to rubbish, including discarded fishing nets and plastics. [Image: Alistair Dermer, Ghostnets Australia]

Waste is a serious problem in the world today, and we are the only ones who can do something about it, as much as we may wish that Captain Planet could just swoop in to save the day. Last summer, a group of volunteers spent four days cleaning up and collecting more than seven metric tons of trash, including miles of fishing nets and over 3,300 plastic bottles, from one beach on Cape York Peninsula in northern Australia. The year before, the volunteers collected about three metric tons…who knows how much they’ll find next year as the global waste pandemic rages on.

But while the thought of literal tons of garbage may be a shock to your system, Professor Veena Sahajwalla looks at it as a golden opportunity. She believes that the concept of waste needs to change.

Sahajwalla said, “We’ve got to value [waste] as a resource. We really shouldn’t have to send any overseas. It’s an important thing to be prepared to not just see it as a problem but also to see it as a fantastic opportunity.”

A professor at the University of New South Wales Sydney (UNSW), Sahajwalla works with a team at the university’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT). They are developing small, modular recycling plants, or microfactories, that will turn several different kinds of plastic waste into usable materials; specifically, into 3D printing filament, which is a concept we’ve seen before.

“We’re looking at different types of waste plastics, it doesn’t have to be the stock-standard PET bottles. E-waste [such as] printers for example, and things like CDs — all of these we have shown that you can convert them into filaments,” Sahajwalla explained.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla hopes to establish small-scale factories across Australia to turn waste into something useful.

We often see great innovations born from combining 3D printing and recycled materials, such as 3D printers made out of e-waste, filaments made from fishing nets, and prosthetics and benches made from recycled trash. Sahajwalla grew up in Mumbai, which is one of the largest industrial centers in the world, and was fascinated with the things which other people thought of as trash.

Sahajwalla said, “Kids collect stamps, I used to collect rubbish — little glass bottles and little things that to me were like, ‘OMG this is so cool!'”

This background makes Sahajwalla, a so-called “waste warrior,” uniquely qualified for the SMaRT team’s microfactory project, which will officially launch, with the help of their industry partners, later this year. Currently, the team is working to develop microfactories that can use e-waste, like circuit boards, to make metal alloys, in addition to reforming food packaging, glass, and textiles.

Sahajwalla explained, “[The system] needs to be flexible enough at the micro-factory level and have different modules to process different types of materials.”

The goal of their work, according to ABC Science, is help recycling occur on a scale where even rural communities and towns are recycling and turning “their waste into a valuable commodity,” like a functioning 3D printer.

Professor Sahajwalla thinks micro-factories can disrupt the manufacturing supply chain. [Image: UNSW]

“To me that is the ultimate empowerment — to be locally producing [materials] yourself. Let’s be exporting the products out to the world … filaments are something that everybody in the world will be using as people do more and more 3D printing,” Sahajwalla said.

Her innovative work on the SMaRT team’s microfactory recycling project has certainly not gone unnoticed, and Sahajwalla was recently awarded the inaugural PLuS Alliance Prize for Research Innovation.

The PLuS Alliance, launched in February of 2016, is an international collaboration between King’s College London, the UNSW Sydney, and Arizona State University, and enables solutions to global challenges that are led by research, while at the same time increasing access to world-class learning. The award, which UNSW says recognizes “outstanding innovation contributions that address global challenges facing society,” is one of four $25,000 prizes presented at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in London this fall.

PLuS Alliance prize winners, L-R: Dr. Laura Hosman, Professor Veena Sahajwalla, Professor Francisco Mojica, and Ms. Akshata Murthy, on behalf of her father, Mr. Narayana Murthy. [Image: David Tett]

Sahajwalla said, “The work we’ve been doing to help global industries use green materials over virgin raw materials is vital to sustainability. This recognition from the PLuS Alliance for the work we’ve been doing to drive change and impact communities across the world is a real honour.”

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below. 

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