When China stopped importing plastics and other difficult-to-recycle materials in early 2018, it left many countries with growing stockpiles of waste and a new challenge of what to do with it all.
In Australia, the move led to a fast-growing oversupply of materials like glass and plastics from industry that were often contaminated and couldn’t be recycled locally, meaning they were destined for landfills across the country.
While some of this waste is now being purchased by other countries with recycling capability, it became clear that innovative solutions were needed to deal with the growing problem.
Mechatronics researchers from the School of Engineering, IT and Physical Sciences have been awarded Federation University’s first Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) grant to develop a project with industry that will allow waste that was previously unrecyclable in Australia to be converted to products for the building industry.
Mechatronics Senior Lecturer Gayan Kahandawa said the Federation researchers will use artificial intelligence (AI) to develop material sorting techniques that will be used at Morwell-based industrial and waste services management group Dasma.
“Dasma approached us and wanted to work with us to develop a solution because, like many in the industry, they had stockpiles of waste and didn’t know what to do with it. This grant is for waste management recycling projects, and the idea behind what we are doing is not just to recycle it, but to upcycle and create products,” Dr Kahandawa said.
“Much of this material that has been collected is contaminated waste and difficult to sort for this purpose. It’s not just clean glass – it could be mixed with sand, oils, and all sorts of contaminants that can be found in industry.
“What we came up with is to use these materials – glass and plastic products – to make tiles. These could be roof tiles for buildings or tiles on the ground – for pavements.”
The project will also involve researchers from RMIT University and the University of Melbourne. The Federation research team led by Dr Kahandawa and Dr Linh Nguyen will use their AI and machine learning expertise to separate and sort the materials to a usable level.
After developing AI-based sorting techniques, the researchers will look at how to automate the process, collaborating with waste management group Vortex Innovations who will provide specialised equipment. Dr Kahandawa said many researchers had been involved in the development of complex algorithms for the AI.
The specialised equipment includes a machine that operates like an enclosed cyclone, smashing glass into finer, consistently sized particles that can be used for tile production. The process is done in a fully sealed and safe environment.
“Our target is to make the input consistent for the production process because if you have different input material, you can't maintain the quality of the tiles coming out of the other side. This is why we want to work with AI and adjust parameters as we need to – perhaps mixing additional materials to keep the product consistent. That's what we are aiming for and that is why we need AI.” Dr Gayan Kahandawa
“It will be a complete plant with a production line. At one end we have waste coming in, at the other, tiles will be coming out. In between, there will be complex material handling machines and our collaborators – automation specialists – will provide the machinery we need.”
The three-year project is worth $5.7 million, including a $2.1 million grant from the Federal Government. Dr Kahandawa said the project would see two PhD students and a research assistant join the mechatronics group.
“There is a lot of money and a lot of resources being directed to this research area because there really aren’t too many options for waste. We all have to act, and this is a great project for us to be involved in.”