Microfactory turns recycling on its head

In 2018 China stopped buying our recycling. Then, in July of this year, Indonesia started turning it back by the container load. With our recycling waste back on our shores, our nation was hurled head-first into an ever-growing recycling crisis.

However, the answer to our recycling problem might have been found in the form of a microfactory. Even better, it’s already open and chipping away at our recycling, turning discarded plastic into useful products.

It’s also been designed specifically so that individual councils can build and customise the factory cheaply to suit their needs.

The first microfactory, developed by the team at the UNSW Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT), can turn plastic waste into high-quality 3D printing filaments.

“The microfactory’s 3D printing filament is a clear guide to what can be achieved,” says Minister for Environment Sussan Ley. The microfactory was federally funded.

“Australia currently exports waste plastic and imports filament for use in schools and business applications. This technology allows the waste plastic to be reformed in Australia, creating Australian jobs. This and other technologies being developed have completed pilot testing phase and are now producing exciting new products.”

A Lego brick approach to building microfactories

One problem is that building a complete microfactory is normally expensive, ranging up to $1 million. But, using the new Lego-brick approach councils can build one module at a time. The microfactory can then scale up as demand grows.

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Veena Sahajwalla with Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley at the SMaRT centre launch. Credit: UNSW

And, unlike other factories that create various types of products from recycled plastic, SMaRT centre director, Veena Sahajwalla says that each module is used to create a singular product.

“They’re different modules, that’s the big difference,” she explains in an interview with Government News. “They’re all engineered to build different products, which is quite different to what a normal factory would do.”

“It’s a step-by-step modular (approach), kind of thinking about it as the Lego bricks of a factory. You can build it up gradually.”

Another benefit of being module by module is that microfactories can be customised to suit different regions’ needs and local requirements.

Instead of modelling off another, councils can look at their own region and determine what they want to do and what their priorities are.

“Councils can actually think about it in their own context,” Sahajwalla says. “And not just assume that they’ve got to do exactly the same thing as the big council next door.”

The economic benefits of a microfactory

Sahajwalla also points out that the microfactory went beyond tackling our recycling crisis. There are also economic, environmental and social benefits to the microfactories.

By recycling our discarded materials into a product, businesses can create profit. Almost all the filament that is used for 3D printing in Australia is imported. However, with this microfactory, filaments could be made locally – that’s good news for local jobs and industries.

“Apart from the economic benefits, there are obvious short and long term environmental and social benefits from being able to reform many hard to manage waste streams into new materials and products and keeping these materials in use for as long as possible.”

With one factory already open and operating, and more local councils expressing interest, we might soon see Australia creating new markets while cleaning up our waste becoming a reality.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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