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Race for zero waste

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The building industry is responsible for over 40% of the waste created in Australia. One woman is transforming some of this waste into sustainable building products – welcome to the materials revolution. 

Liz Barrett

Senior Content Producer

Typically, when you imagine an eco-warrior, it’s unlikely that you'd picture an innovative and dynamic female scientist working in a lab. However, that’s precisely what award-winning Professor Veena Sahajwalla is renowned for doing. 
 
Growing up in Mumbai, India, Veena was raised with an intrinsic curiosity in the local repair and reuse economy. This interest has evolved into a life-long crusade to transform waste globally, promoting circular principles for the design, production and use of end-of-life products and materials. Rather than seeing garbage as a waste product, Veena views it as an untapped and renewable resource.  
Professor Veena Sahajwalla
'What we call "rubbish" is just another beautiful source of materials waiting to be harnessed,’ she says. ‘This means we have to work hard at figuring out how it can be channelled into different manufacturing solutions. Of course, one is traditional recycling – converting a plastic water bottle into another plastic water bottle. Here at the UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre, we have expanded on that, transforming waste into completely new products.'  

Veena and her team of 30 dedicated and passionate engineers and scientists at the SMaRT Centre based at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) are pushing environmentally sustainable production boundaries.  
 
The carbon footprint created from building and construction waste is the highest of all industries here in Australia. We are responsible for 18.2 million tonnes of it each year. Adding to that, global export bans on waste have come into force, so the problem is now ours to solve. 
'People are talking about reducing their impact on the planet – builders and designers are talking about it. I'm feeling optimistic watching sustainability become mainstream and part of our daily lives. Australians in particular are looking for opportunities – we don't want to end up completely buried in our own waste.'  
Veena and her team are not novices when it comes to reimaging sustainable building materials. They saw an opportunity in the steel industry which is heavily reliant on coal. The team attempted to convert discarded tyres globally into carbon for steel production.  
 
Successfully the world's first sustainable 'Green SteelTM' technology was born, and this innovation has now been commercialised both here and overseas in countries including South Korea, Thailand, the UK and Norway. The response to 'Green Steel' has been another indicator of the rise of environmentally conscious demand. 
'How Green Steel has been embraced speaks a lot about the growing awareness of not only industry but consumers,’ Veena says. ‘There has been a shift in consumer consciousness, questioning the kinds of products they use. People want environmentally sustainable products in every aspect of their lives, from food to clothing to the very foundation of their homes.'  
The latest achievement for Veena and her team is a collaboration with developer and HIA Member Mirvac, manufacturing a collection of recycled waste materials into what is called Green CeramicsTM. 'What we've achieved and shown in partnership with Mirvac is tremendous. Having an organisation that proactively supports the manufacturing of these kinds of repurposed materials, then actively installing them in their built environments, is so brave and bold.'  
 
The journey from concept to realisation has been a long but rewarding one for Veena and her team. 'Commercialisation is never easy. We were fortunate to have funding from the New South Wales Government’s Physical Science Fund via the Office of NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer. This made the whole process feasible for a bunch of scientists and engineers to embark on such an adventure. It's one of those wonderful moments – the intersection of business, government and research all working together.' 
 
The process itself required collaboration from both the team at Mirvac and the SMaRT Centre. 'To me, it goes to show when you all have shared values, it doesn't matter where you work or what your job description is. It's all about coming together and collectively making things happen. For us, it not only made good business sense and created great outcomes, but it also showed that science could solve real problems and have an impact beyond the laboratory.' 
 
The idea was to convert disused textiles and glass into quality sustainable building materials for floors, walls and benchtops. 'The common misconception with recycled goods is that they are typically considered low quality; that they will never perform or meet luxury standards. Science provides evidence that these items can be repurposed into high-quality goods – it’s exciting to challenge this notion with these products.' 
 
Once created, each product needed to undergo rigorous testing, such as acoustic, fire and resistance tests, all required to meet Australian building codes and standards for interior solutions. They also underwent testing protocols by a third-party to ensure they met Mirvac's quality assurance. As a result of coloured textiles used in production, the finished product is available in a spectrum of colours and tones. Remarkably, combining the materials used to make the Green Ceramics gives the product a variation and natural character you would expect to get from stone or wood.  
 
'To manage the colour consistency for large orders and bulk builds, we control the input textiles into the mix. Then we get these naturalistic ranges of colour tones; you can produce very light to very dark products or anything in between. The process allows the materials to blend together in an alluring form; it looks almost textural and ultimately beautiful.'  
 
For the SMaRT Centre team, installing their Green Ceramics in the Pavilions Residences by Mirvac apartments at Sydney Olympic Park was a surreal experience, seeing their efforts manifested. 'I got goosebumps seeing the space for the first time. Walking in somewhere and seeing something you've created in a fully functional living space; knowing it’s going to impact the future of our planet, as well as people in their day-to day-life, is almost indescribable.'  
The other innovation in this process is the development of the SMaRT Centre MICROfactorieTM, built to transform the waste materials into these new goods. An industrial site has also been set up in rural Cootamundra, allowing the team to ramp up future production, processing large volumes of waste materials to produce larger quantities for bigger building projects. 'From our point of view, our ability to have this commercially operating MICROfactorie will set ourselves up to deliver industrial-scale quantities.' 
 
These MICROfactories could change how we manufacture goods and de-centralise the waste management process, allowing communities to manage their own waste, recycling items into reusable goods. 'We can create products that will deliver the right outcomes for people and our planet. That’s the real beauty of the MICROfactorie concept we’ve developed. It may even give us the skills and technology to help get to zero waste in this country.' 
 
Not one to slow down her momentum, Veena is working on a multitude of exciting new projects and prototypes using MICROfactorie technologies. 'Building and construction is the first major sector that has proven to have a market for what MICROfactories can manufacture. But, creating products for the housing sector and built environments is only the beginning. There are lots of different kinds of MICROfactories we're in the process of developing, which is incredibly exciting for us.' 
 
For more information or to specify the Green Ceramics collection for your next building or renovation project, visit https://www.smart.unsw.edu.au/news-events/news/industry-first-apartment-made-waste-glass-and-textiles or contact the Smart Centre for product and purchasing details - SmartCentre@unsw.edu.au. 

Discover the green building revolution  

Join the HIA GreenSmart Program because we believe in building a better future. 
Demand for sustainable and responsible housing is an ever expanding area of the housing market. Consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious, wanting more from their homes and exteriors than ever before.  
 
To meet these growing needs, HIA developed GreenSmart - one of Australia’s first professional green building initiatives. Designed to support members in getting their green building credentials, it allows you to join our GreenSmart Professional Training Course which will hone your building and design skills.  
 
After completing your training, we show how to promote your GreenSmart credentials. Your sustainable housing projects can be recognised through HIA GreenSmart project accreditation and members can enter the HIA GreenSmart Awards to showcase your work.  
 
Best of all, you’ll have access to the latest updates on sustainable building and design, invitations to trade events showcasing the latest products and the opportunity to connect with GreenSmart partners.  
 
GreenSmart is a voluntary initiative available to all existing and new HIA Members and associates. Find out more at www.hia.com.au/greensmart