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Electrifying the world the Australian way

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By Veena Sahajwalla

· 4 min read

With the growth in electric vehicles, wind turbines, domestic solar systems, and so many batteries needed including for the huge range of electronic devices such as phones and computers, it is often overlooked that almost all of the materials needed to electrify our world are finite in supply. And this is where waste recycling, and Australia, can play a major leading role.

Recent scientific papers by the UNSW Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre published in leading international journals demonstrate that we can reform materials embedded in various waste batteries, such as cobalt and nickel. Often this sort of waste material is exported and the value derived from the extraction and recovery of the embedded materials is lost.

Meanwhile, other technologies developed and being developed can recycle and reform many of the materials from electronic waste that contain copper, manganese, zinc, gold and various rare earth elements. This means that waste itself can and should be seen as a resource if we want to electrify the world and be more sustainable.

Using microrecycling-based techniques to reform waste into value-added materials means we can also accelerate the ‘advancing’ of our sovereign manufacturing capability in a Covid, supply chain-constrained era. For instance, over the past five years the volume of discarded smartphones, laptops, printers and many other electronic devices that reached their end of life has jumped 21%.

This e-waste reached a record 53.6 million tonnes in 2019, an average of 7.3kg per person, and has become the fastest-growing domestic waste stream, according to the United Nation’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020 report. The report predicts global e-waste will reach a staggering 74 million tonnes by 2030, most of which will end up in landfills, stockpiles or incinerators.

Yet recycling activities are not keeping pace with the global growth of e-waste – just 17.4% of 2019’s e-waste was collected and recycled, the report notes. Incredibly, this means the amount of e-waste could easily become equal to or bigger than plastics.

The European Electronics Recyclers Association (EERA) says, depending on the type of e-waste, between 60% and 95% of the material can be recycled. According to the UN, the value of raw materials in the e-waste generated in 2019 was equal to approximately US$ 57 billion (EUR 50 billion) yet just US$ 10 billion of this was recovered through recycling.

What’s more, electric vehicle sales rose 40% to 3.1 million units in 2020 and are predicted to grow to 30-40 million units by 2030. Yet across the world there is a growing willingness within communities to embrace the many and considerable issues we face in the management of our materials sustainability, not just in cleaner energy. We need a change of mindset that values our materials and challenges our throw-away mentality.

Pleasingly, new government policies include rare earths (such as neodymium found in computer hard drives) as a national priority and there is also a renewed focus across all levels of government to better manage our waste, recycling and manufacturing resources.

Even the International Energy Agency in its recently released ‘Net Zero by 2050’ report is calling for more advance recycling capability, saying that 40% of emissions savings in 2030 can occur  in industry because of improvements in materials efficiency and increased recycling.

Recycling not only brings obvious materials and societal benefits, but delivers reduced energy needs and environmental impacts because it overcomes the energy-intensive extraction and processing required of natural resources.

The Federal Government’s recent National Waste Report 2020 shows Australia’s national waste increased to 74 million tonnes a year. Of that, about 60% is estimated to be recycled but Australia’s new waste export bans coming into effect from this year are expected to reduce the rate of recycling. This is below the national resource recovery target of 80% by 2030 which was set in the 2019 National Waste Policy Action Plan.

Infrastructure Australia’s (IA) recently released Priority List Report highlights the urgent need for new waste and recycling infrastructure and has listed at the highest priority the need for the nation to retool itself in this area.

That is why I see a huge opportunity to adopt and create new technologies that lead to new supply chains and jobs to help us address these challenges. The new Australian Research Council (ARC) Microrecycling Research Hub that I am heading up is focused to help our nation achieve this.

My vision is for decentralised, modernised and an alignment of recycling and manufacturing where we value our materials and strive for greater material sustainability. Enabling onshore, sophisticated waste processing, recycling and the reforming of waste as a resource must be central to global electrification and Australia’s ongoing prosperity.

This op-ed also appeared on SM@ART at UNSW. Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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