Picture a world without waste – QUT researchers believe it’s possible

Picture a world without waste – QUT researchers believe it’s possible

Imagine using an app to track plastic use; or robotic bins sorting your rubbish; or an invention able to separate polyester and cotton for recycling. All are close to reality under a QUT Waste-Free World project.

With the average Australian household generating around of 1.5 tonnes of domestic waste a year, a world without waste is the ambitious aim of the project led by Dr Alice Payne, a fashion lecturer with QUT’s Creative Industries faculty who champions the end of ‘fast fashion’.

It calls for a radical shift in our approach to waste and looks at how to find new value for plastic and textile waste using technical innovation, education and community engagement to better sort, separate and repurpose it.

The Waste-Free World project brings together academics including Dr Payne under the banner of QUT’s Institute for Future Environments.

“Plastic and textile waste represent an enormous component of the waste generated by Australians and we can do much better with the aid of technology and innovative thinking,” Dr Payne said.

“A report released in May from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services stated up to one million plant and animal species face extinction, many within decades, because of human activities. Plastic waste in particular was identified as a major contributor to this.

Plastics

“Sorting of waste is often treated at the end stage of product cycle at centralised waste recycling facilities. At QUT, researchers are developing robotic bin technology to decentralise the waste sorting problem by combining intelligent optoelectronic sensors, robotics and machine learning.

“In a project headed up by QUT robotics expert Dr Ajay Pandey, the unique fingerprint of routine objects – paper, plastics, glass, metals and even textiles – is being identified so that it can be sorted in designated categories for efficient recycling.

“His team are also looking into incorporating user behaviour and local waste disposable guidelines. Although developed for the household level, this robotic bin technology could also make recycling more efficient and responsible at industrial scale.”

Plastic count app

Another Waste-Free World project is being developed by Dr Manuela Taboada from QUT’s School of Design – the ‘Designing out Plastic’ app which will soon be ready for trials.

“The app will help people set goals to reduce plastic waste as well as track their use of items like coffee cups, cutlery, drink bottles, shopping bags, straws, packaging, disposable razors and more,” said Dr Payne.

“By keeping such real time track of their habits, consumers will be able to change their behaviour accordingly and help make our world a cleaner place.”

Dr Payne’s own work focuses promoting the circular economy in fashion through finding new value for textile waste.

“Textile waste accounts for 3-4% of landfill, and far more is exported overseas, while charities struggle to cope with increasing volumes of poor-quality donations,” she said.

Clothing waste

“We are identifying and testing solutions to effectively reuse, recycle and find new value for textile waste. Through better understanding of how people care for, dispose and recycle their clothes, we seek to prevent and reduce this waste.”

Dr Payne said one of the most exciting developments is a QUT collaboration with BlockTexx which has created world-first technology to separate cotton and polyester.

“Recovering the raw materials from unwanted garments opens up a huge range of options to recycle fabrics into products such as chairs, food containers, toothpaste, cosmetics, clothes, playground equipment, paint thickeners and much more,” said Associate Professor Robert Speight, QUT’s collaboration lead from the Institute for Future Environments Bio-economy team.

“Textile separation and resource recovery at commercial scale will become a reality in 2019, with BlockTexx planning to have their first plant up and running later this year,” he said.