Navigating Australia’s emerging circular economy

This article was first published in the November 2020 issue of Australian Printer magazine

Australian printers have a critical role to play in the emerging circular economy as the industry aims to redefine growth by focusing on the positive society-wide benefits of it.

NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN) Development Manager Dr Don McCallum said like many other industries, print is going through significant technological change.

“By developing technologies that can improve substrates and adhesives printers will have a greater say in what happens to their products post-consumption,” Dr McCallum said.

“Australian universities and research institutions have a lot to offer with regards to developing innovative solutions for sensing contaminants and creating materials that will easily lend themselves to separation and ultimately recycling.”

In a project coordinated by the NSSN, PEGRAS Asia Pacific and other major Australian companies will work with university researchers to develop solutions for sensing and treating residual contaminants on HDPE milk bottles.

The project aims to increase the percentage of recycled HDPE in materials recovery facilities (MRFs) by developing state of the art sensing technologies.

As part of this project, researchers from UNSW, University of Sydney and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) will develop methods to sense and remove the contaminants on HDPE plastic chips, scale the solution for deployment in recycling facilities and provide a high-resolution material flow analysis for the HDPE milk bottle supply chain.

Dr McCallum said with the Waste Export Ban coming into effect, it is crucial for Australian manufacturers to develop sustainable practices and use materials that are part of the circular economy.

The Ban prohibits the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres that have not been processed into a “value-added” material.

“We are looking to expand the project from HDPE to other key polymers and objects like paper, glass and even RFID tags. We are happy to collaborate with printers working with complex materials,” Dr McCallum added.

“The NSSN can bring together print companies with scientists and engineers and provide guidance on grants available for local businesses.”

A consortium of eight leading research universities from across NSW and the ACT, the NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN) brings together expertise in academia, industry and government to deliver innovative solutions to complex challenges.

The NSSN has access to a broad pool of scientific expertise with application across a range of industries and sectors including the built environment, agriculture, medical technology, space, energy, data analytics and advanced manufacturing.

The Network collaborates with industry and government partners to gain an in-depth understanding of their challenges and draws upon the research strengths of leading research institutions to develop smart sensing solutions.

Managing consultant at PEGRAS Asia Pacific Dr Stephanus Peters said for the last 500 years print manufacturers have developed products with an eye to quality and quantity.

“It is recently that we have realised these products have to be deconstructed in order to be recycled,” Dr Peters said.

“Manufacturing a printed product with recycling in mind greatly increases the product’s ability to be deconstructed at the end of life cycle, enabling it to contribute to the circular economy.”

Dr Peters said by collaborating on research and development projects, local businesses and scientists can find solutions to problems such as de-laminating and de-inking, and as a result, improve the recyclability of printed products. 

“There is an enormous potential for [research and development] projects with NSW universities,” Dr Peters said.

“A Chinese Proverb says ‘The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second-best time is now’. So, we may not be conditioned to solve problems by asking the universities, but if we don’t ask, we will never know which solution they can bring.”

NSSN development manager Dr Donald McCallum and PEGRAS managing consultant Dr Stephanus Peters as interviewed by NSSN media and public relations officer Shahrzad Abbasi

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