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SEGRA Foundation

Useful recycled products are already here: We just need a way to use them 

By Annemaree Jensen

Dr Tristan Shelley and Associate Professor Polly Burey at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba know that circular economies don’t work if you aren’t converting waste materials into high value end products that are in demand. They also know that circular economies need to be able to operate in small rural communities as well as in metropolitan environments. As co-Directors of their NO WASTE pilot precinct and SIMPLE Hub programs, they have already seen a number of useful products developed, including a product similar to MDF board made out of used disposable coffee cups and sign posts, buckets and Frisbees made out of mixed plastic waste.

Tristan comments, “One of our researchers, Matt Flynn has used disposable coffee cups to create products that are as strong as Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) and firewood simply using heat and pressure. Matt’s products are a great way to recycle disposable coffee cups that can’t go through normal recycled paper processing channels because they’re coated in plastic.” He continues, “In the sign post example above, our partner Talon Technology has combined mixed waste plastics into a solid core and then surrounded this with a flax fibre waste impregnated plastic skin. This creates a strong corrosion resistant product, with these sign posts already in place on Dee Why Beach in NSW.” Geoff Germon from Talon Technology adds, “Sign posts are widely used and an average post uses the equivalent of 2,200 plastic shopping bags, so this product could make a significant difference.”

But unfortunately current standards for such products are written with a materials focus rather than a performance focus. Polly explains, “We’re seeing that these recycled products are just as strong as other materials that are used, but that current standards don’t accommodate them. For example, the current sign post standard says that sign posts have to be galvanised, which is of course completely unnecessary with recycled plastic products. So we’d like to see changes in the way such standards are developed in the future.” Geoff Germon from Talon Technology adds, “We need Councils across Australia to champion recycled products, and to take a good hard look at how their procurement policies can support such products.”

Tristan and Polly also take a systems thinking approach to creating successful circular economies, recognising that partnerships and a holistic view of communities are needed to create circular economies that work. They’re also committed to the development of small micro-processing factories for use in rural communities. Polly explains, “Part of our program focuses on setting up micro-processing factories to deal with small volumes in rural communities. Our partner Talon Technology is developing prototypes that are specifically designed to work in very small communities, with projects in Fiji and the Philippines also on the horizon. And there are more exciting developments for both rural and metropolitan Australia in the pipeline, with Tristan noting, “We’re also looking at processing problematic materials such as agricultural waste and possibly mixed plastics and converting these into fuel sources or biochar style materials.”

Tristan Shelley will speak on the above innovative recycling work being undertaken as part of the University of Southern Queensland’s NO WASTE and SIMPLE HUB projects, with the circular economy hot on the agenda when the SEGRA Foundation gathers leading Australian politicians, thinkers and doers at this year’s National Regional and Economic Development Summit in Toowoomba on 26-27 July. Dedicated to advancing the economic, environmental and social outcomes for rural, remote and regional Australia, the Summit will focus on a collective approach to solving the biggest issues facing the regions.

Registrations for the National Regional and Economic Development Summit are now open