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Solutions in circulation for the war on waste

Dirk Erler posing in front of machinery


Michael Jacobson
6 November 2023

Southern Cross University is working closely with industry, business, government, environmental groups and communities on ways to activate and accelerate initiatives around waste and the principles of the Circular Economy.


Solutions in circulation for the war on waste

A pilot project led by Southern Cross University is providing “concrete” evidence of how technology, shared vision and environmental empathy can improve how we deal with waste.

In partnership with international building material company CRDC Global, the project is using plastic waste as an aggregate replacement in concrete for construction applications. Southern Cross University is leading the structural testing of the material in Australia.

With financial benefits around waste disposal and the cost of raw materials, along with environmental gains from diverting valuable materials away from landfill and back into new products, the project typifies strategic thinking towards new practices and sustainable ends. It is the Circular Economy in practice – and it is not the only example in which Southern Cross University has a major role.

“It is a small start, but transformation often starts that way,” says Professor Andrew Rose, environmental engineer and Academic Director of the University’s ReCirculator program.

“Waste has certain connotations – that it is useless, contaminated and without value – and these have long influenced what we do with it. We need to see waste as a resource, or at least as a potential resource, then instil that message into our thinking and our behaviour.”

The imperative is simple: it does not matter how or where you start; simply that you do.

A key component in Southern Cross University’s regional commitment is ReCirculator, a $2m Federal Government-funded project to support information exchange, cutting-edge research and technology implementation around waste. Part of the University’s ZeroWaste research cluster, ReCirculator brings together expertise in geochemistry, environmental science, engineering, business and education to develop solutions at local level.

The potential gains go beyond the environmental to also impact at social, economic and behavioural levels, all arising from new thinking on what waste is, and how it can be utilised as a resource. In other words, how waste no longer simply goes to waste.

The Recirculator project is about bridging the Gap between technology development and adoption by industry. So you already have a lot of technologies out there that industry could potentially use to turn their waste products into resources,   it's really about developing pilot scale systems to demonstrate the scientific and economic benefits of that technology. My name is Dirk Erler I'm a researcher at Southern Cross University and I'm working on waste management in the circular economy.  So this is an anaerobic digester. The same bacteria that are in that digester actually are in the guts of cows. It's the same process that generates methane. Whereas cows will burp out a lot of that methane, we're capturing it here and burning it and using that energy back in the plant.  I'm Craig Kelly and I work for Richmond Dairies as the Chief Financial Officer. Fundamentally this project is about recycling nutrients. We capture a lot of nutrients through our factory through the washing process and we treat them at the moment through our wastewater facility here,   but there are still nutrients in that wastewater that we believe we can extract and reuse beneficially back on the same farmlands that generate the milk that comes into this factory.  Those nutrients are what we're trying to recapture and if we can extract the nutrients then the water is of good enough quality to discharge to the local wetland and provide a continual source of water for all that natural wetland and all those environmental benefits that come from that.  I’m Simon Stahl, I'm the Chief Executive  Officer of the Casino Food Co-Op.   The project we're doing here is actually fixing up some organics that come into the water that we want to separate so that we can take them in two different streams and it's better for our wastewater processes at the end of the plant. So we had a problem, we engaged the university and we've got this project that they tell me is going very well.  We need science and we need academics to help fix our problems and help come up with solutions,   and so having Southern Cross working with us they've opened the door and said ‘Hey,   what are some of the problems?’. We're also working with the university in terms of looking at the carbon balance across the Northern Rivers region, looking at a project of what are our emissions? Let's get a baseline for the region. And the university’s actually facilitating that. Then there's going to be some science required to look at some opportunities to lower our emissions across the region. We're looking for anyone from government, industry and community organisations who'd like to come into ReCirculator journey with Southern Cross University. What we want to do is to work with like-minded organisations to create a strong and sustainable circular economy for the Northern Rivers region.

In May 2023, a public event entitled The Impact Forum on the Circular Economy fleshed out how this is happening and why it must.

Held at the University’s Lismore campus, the forum featured seventeen speakers and engaged influential groups such as Business Lismore, Business NSW, NSW Environment Protection Authority, Circonomy, Circular Australia, the Centre for Regenerative Design and Collaboration and Institute Sustainable Futures. The event was also part of the University’s Live Ideas initiative to activate ideas for positive change.

Keynote speaker was Professor Linda Godfrey, global leader on the Circular Economy and, among many roles, Principal Scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (South Africa). Throughout an illustrious career she has provided strategic input to waste and green economy initiatives for the European Union, United Nations, departments of Science and Technology and Environmental Affairs; the Development Bank of South Africa; the Academy of Sciences of South Africa; the Institute of Waste Management and several universities.

When Professor Godfrey talks rubbish, it is worth listening to.

“The Circular Economy is really about sustainable resource management,” she says. “It tracks the movement of resources through an economy which, for now, has been very linear: that is, we extract resources, we make things, we consume things, and we throw them away.

“The Circular Economy is more than waste management because by the time you get to the point of waste and pollution, it is too late. It is an end of pipe solution. We have got to move the entire discussion upstream in terms of our consumption behaviour. We need to use less, we need to use longer, and we need to reuse.”

“We are dealing with a global transition to a whole different economy. This is an enormous undertaking. It is not just about recycling and changing waste. It is about how we use resources and how we value resources. It is fundamental change to society.”

Southern Cross University’s Professor Dirk Erler agrees. Chief Investigator for the ReCirculator program, he bemoans our “make, take, waste” society.

“We are dealing with a global transition to a whole different economy. This is an enormous undertaking. It is not just about recycling and changing waste. It is about how we use resources and how we value resources. It is fundamental change to society.”cipating in ReCirculator by looking at ways to extract nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater, then taking them back to the farmland in the form of a slow-release fertiliser. Water can then be released into nearby wetlands rather than paying for disposal through a sewage treatment plant.

The company’s Chief Financial Officer Mr Craig Kelly is convinced of ReCirculator’s potential. “From an environmental viewpoint, we must be adept at recovering waste,” he says. “There is also a commercial imperative because customers want to deal with firms that are reducing their carbon footprint. That is why liaising with Southern Cross University is so valuable. Dirk and the ReCirculator team are bringing us to the forefront of new research.”

Hand in bucket of glass sand
Recovered glass sand, made from used glass drink containers and other recycled glass.

Just down the road at The Casino Food Co-op, the region’s largest employer has several waste streams that require better treatment to improve sustainability. Southern Cross University is working with the company to treat its tannery wastewater and enable the discharge of clean water.

Other projects in the ZeroWaste research cluster are making their own contributions, bringing expertise and initiatives to areas such as waste mitigation in red meat processing; plastic and polymer production; marine plastic pollution; and fertiliser pollution in our waterways.

Meanwhile, schools are participating in waste reduction programs devised at Southern Cross University, and a redeveloped Bachelor of Engineering Systems is nurturing a whole-of-system understanding of engineering solutions by tomorrow’s engineers.

All initiatives are part of a broader push towards transformation in the Northern Rivers. And the impact is both professional and personal.

“I grew up in the Northern Rivers. It is such a beautiful region and I was aware very early of the importance of trying to protect that beauty,” says Professor Rose.

“I also like building things, so environmental engineering seemed the perfect combination to me. It is about trying to improve society by using technology in a way that is both respectful of the limits on the environment and of our impacts as humans on the environment.

“The Circular Economy relates well to environmental engineering, which has that technical aspect while also encompassing economics, social behaviour and social expectations. It has the potential to transform our attitude towards resource use in society.”

In other words, on a planet with finite resources, making better use of waste is never a waste of time.