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Solving our global waste problem: SCU Buzz


Caitlin Lea
22 April 2024

With over 380 million tonnes of plastic being produced per year and 500 billion plastic bags in 2023 alone, its safe to say we’re in dire need of innovative solutions to our global waste problem.

To begin to tackle the issue, Southern Cross University has a range of research projects underway. From implementing circular economy principles to using AI in waste management.

Professor Dirk Erler and Professor Andrew Rose from the University’s Zero Waste research cluster join us for a special Earth Day edition of the SCU Buzz podcast. 

“There are warehouses all over Australia filled with piles of plastic. In order to get rid of that, we’re focussing on downcycling,” Professor Erler said.

“That just means taking a waste product and doing something with it. But what you do with it is quite important. If you're downcycling it, you're turning it into a product that is in itself going to become waste at some point. It's difficult to get the plastic back out of that product. Whereas if you're upcycling it, you're putting it back into the circular system,” he said. 

One major upcycling project led by the Zero Waste cluster involves turning plastic into a fuel source through pyrolysis, which is the thermal decomposition of organic compounds. The upcycled fuel source can then be used to run machinery such as cars and tractors.

“The second thing we’re doing is using plastics to make an aggregate, which is a replacement for concrete,” Professor Erler continued.

“Its much lighter and has some better thermal insulation properties. Our work involves making these concretes and testing their structural integrity,” he said.

The University is partnering with industry both in Australia and overseas to develop these technologies and align them with circular economy principals.

“We've embraced the fact that we want to broker technologies. We want to partner with industries. We're not going it alone. This is a much bigger picture,” Professor Erler said.

The Zero Waste team are also using similar upcycling technology to treat biomass waste generated from agricultural activities and food processing by converting it into biochar or hydrochar.  

“We can use these sorts of technologies to create stable carbon that can then go back into soils and back into the environment. In the longer term, that's potentially a way that we can start to maybe reverse some of the effects of climate change by starting to pull carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere,” Professor Andrew Rose explained in the podcast. 

In the field of artificial intelligence, Zero Waste researchers are focussed on developing a smart circular economy in the Northern Rivers, which includes a digital map of materials in the region, identifying what they are and where they are going, before they end up in landfill.

Learn more about the Zero Waste research cluster and connect on LinkedIn.