From single-use plastics to e-waste, Australia – and the world – has a waste problem, and engineers are at the forefront of clearing the way to a solution.
Straws and other single-use plastics are the poster children for the world’s wasteful ways. In Australia, we consume billions of single-use plastics each year, with most ending up in landfill. But it’s not just plastic harming the environment. In 2016-17 Australia generated 67 million tonnes of waste, including 17 million tonnes of masonry (building) materials and 14 million tonnes of organics (food and garden waste). Thankfully, the war on waste is in full swing and engineers are on the frontline.
Something old, something new
Charlotte Wang’s journey into fighting waste started at UNSW Sydney during her environmental engineering degree. There, she joined a student society project to collect old computers and arrange for a company to refurbish them before donating them to socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Soon, she was leading the student-run not-for-profit eReuse.
“We focused on the student-development opportunities afforded by the refurbishment process, convincing UNSW’s student organisation, Arc, to take on the program and fund it through the uni’s compulsory student amenities fee,” says Charlotte.
Her work with eReuse saw more than 100 computers, destined for landfill, become donated to groups such as Maroubra’s Junction Neighbourhood Centre and Ghana’s African Youth Initiatives Centre.
Charlotte now works as a sustainability consultant at Edge Environment, helping manufacturers understand how their products cause environmental impacts.
Consider the parts that make up your family car. Now, reflect on where these materials end up once the car dies. Finally, consider the estimated 1.7 billion cars that will be on Earth’s roads by 2035. What a waste!
Reducing automotive waste is a key focus of Dr Rifat Farzana’s research at UNSW Sydney’s centre for Sustainable Materials & Technologies (SMaRT). There, Rifat – who has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering – finds ways to reduce our consumption of natural resources, while diverting waste from landfill to create new and improved products.
Rifat and her colleagues, for example, have had success exposing the shredded noxious waste left behind after vehicles are scrapped (usually containing a mix of plastics, rubber, glass and metals) to extremely high temperatures, creating new value-added materials suitable for different applications.
She says the goal of such research is helping to provide a liveable planet for future generations. “Our planet is a confined place, and landfill won’t resolve the problem,” she says.
Rifat urges students considering an engineering career to join the war on waste. “We need your innovative ideas to solve the world’s waste-management problem and create a sustainable planet by balancing a framework for people, the planet and profit.”
Eng + waste study paths
Bachelor of Environmental Engineering (Honours), UNSW
Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) (Environmental), University of Adelaide
Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical Engineering) (Honours), RMIT University
Jobs to search
Environmental engineer: $48K–$99K
Mechanical engineer: $52K–$110K
Materials engineer: $55K–$107K
This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Engineering 2019.
Author: Jake Dean
Jake Dean is a South Australian writer and surfer with a passion for science, the environment and conservation.