Every year around 16,650 tonnes of waste batteries, or the equivalent of around 810 million AA batteries goes to landfill in Australia.

Electronic waste in the form of discarded products ranging from mobile phones to computers and televisions accounts for one of the fastest growing waste streams, with around 88% of the 4 million computers purchased ending up in landfill, further contributing to the 140,000+ tonnes of electronic waste generated each year.

And even more baffling, only a mere 10% of that e-waste is recycled.

It is what we do with these old gadgets that represents a big challenge, or depending on how you look at it, a big opportunity that needs to be dealt with quickly.

This is where Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Professor Veena Sahajwalla comes in.

Last week she was named the 2022 NSW Australian of the Year for her work in recycling science, where she has pioneered the high temperature transformation of waste in the production of a new generation of green materials.

Sahajwalla launched the world’s first e-waste microfactory in 2018 as well as a plastics microfactory in 2019 and is now the founding director at the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) at the University of Sydney.

She also heads up the new ARC micro-recycling research hub, a five-year national program of research and development looking to establish viable means to recover these untapped resources.

ewaste recycling stocks
NSW Australian of the Year Professor Veena Sahajwalla. Pic: Supplied


What is a microfactory?

A microfactory is a custom designed, small-scale facility used for the assembly of a complex product that can be located almost anywhere to transform waste into valuable resources.

According to Sahajwalla they present a solution to burning and burying waste items, which contain materials that can be transformed into value-added products to meet existing and new industry demands.

For instance, from e-waste, computer circuit boards can be transformed into valuable metal alloys such as copper and tin. Glass and plastic from e-devices can be converted into micromaterials used in industrial grade ceramics and plastic filaments for 3D printing.

Another example Sahajwalla said is cobalt in the formation of electrodes. Rather than relying on mined cobalt, where much of it comes from the Congo and raises many questions around ethical standards, it can be accessed through these waste resources and used as a feedstock in the next line of application.

The waste is reformed through thermal techniques into valuable metal alloys, enabling rare earth metals and minerals to be recycled.

This process is what Sahajwalla calls ‘micro-recycling’, which describes small-scale manufacturing of material recovered and reformed from complex battery and consumer wastes.

Industry support

The UNSW has developed the technology with support from the Australian Research Council and is now in partnership with several businesses and organisations including e-waste recycler TES-AMM, mining manufacturer Moly-Cop, Australian property group Mirvac, and Dresden – a sustainable eyewear company.

In April, Mirvac unveiled an industry first apartment made from waste materials at the UNSW SMaRT centre, where green ceramic waste was used for the first time as a construction material. 

The next stage in the collaboration will be to investigate opportunities to establish a microfactory to enable local sourcing and the manufacture of waste into green ceramic.

And more recently steelmaker Moly Corp received a $750,000 grant to implement SMaRT’s green steel technology, or patented polymer injection technology (PIT), at its Waratah Electric Arc Furnance steelmaking facility.

The technology provides a recycling solution for polymer materials such as tyres, conveyor belts and other rubber products.

Sahajwalla said the industry is excited about future possibilities.

“It is new science – when it comes to recycling science most of the time people haven’t heard of micro-recycling,” she said.

“But we are now pioneering this whole area, we have coined the word and the ARC funding has allowed us to set that scene as to what the science might look like.”


ASX listed recycling stocks

Large cap Cleanaway Waste Management (ASX:CWY) is the industry leader on the ASX, responsible for waste and recycling collection for councils across Australia.

Back in April, Cleanaway partnered with Suez, a French-based utility company operating in the waste and waste management sector to acquire two landfills and five transfer stations in Sydney. Shares have gained 23.01% over the past year to $2.94.

The business remains in very strong financial health after securing a three-year $500 million committed debt facility to support the funding of the Suez’s assets.

Bingo Industries (ASX:BIN) was another big player before Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets (MIRA) bought them out in April for $2.3b. The company started with four garbage trucks in 2005.

Another big cap is Sims Metal Management (ASX:SGM) within the metal and electronics recycling space. Its shares have gained 36.03% over the last year, sitting at $15.14 at the time of writing.

But there are also a couple small caps to consider.

Lithium Australia (ASX:LIT)

LIT’s shares have soared 108.33% this past year. It is a developer of lithium extraction technologies and has invested in the infrastructure to recycle lithium-ion batteries nationwide through a partnership with Envirostream Australia.

M8 Sustainable Limited (ASX:M8S)

M8 Sustainable is an integrated waste management business underpinned by a high-quality portfolio of waste management assets.

It says it is focused on the “smart end” of the waste management sector, leveraging opportunities in the downstream sectors of processing and disposal and currently owns and operates two resource recovery facilities.

Other general recycling stocks

Range International (ASX:RAN)

RAN is a manufacturer of recycled plastic pallets.

Its thermo-fusion technology enables it to make plastic pallets from 100% recycled mixed waste plastic, at a price that is competitive with wood pallets. It currently has four production lines operating in Indonesia, and sells its pallets under the brand Re>Pal.

Pearl Global (ASX:PG1)

Pearl focuses on the environmental technology for the waste tyre industry.

It applies thermal desorption technology to convert end-of-life tyres into valuable secondary products such as fuel oil, steel, carbon char and energy. It’s the first Australian company licensed to thermally treat tyres, after the government banned the export of waste tyres.

The company says it’s serving a large addressable market, with 1.6 billion tyres discarded globally every year, of which Australia makes up 56 million. Pearl says it has processed over 1 million tyres to date at its Stapylton facility.

Papyrus Australia (ASX:PPY)

Papyrus develops technology that converts the waste trunk of the banana palm into products used in the packaging, furniture, and construction industries.

The company says its products have qualities not found in existing wood-based products, due to the ability to preserve the inherent natural qualities of the banana tree trunk.

The focus in the past year has been to expand its Papyrus Egypt business, and apply its know-how in a developing country where bananas are grown.

The company has also had success in Japan, exporting its veneer products to the Yamaha musical instruments manufacturers, as well as a recent licensing agreement in China for its technology.