Professor Veena Sahajwalla: Making tidal waves in recycling science

Our 2022 NSW Australian of the Year, Professor Veena Sahajwalla, is one of Australia’s best-known scientists and internationally recognised for her pioneering work in revolutionising recycling science. As part of our 2022 Australian of the Year series, Veena talks about drawing inspiration from Mumbai’s bazaars, her five-year goal and her biggest triumph.

Professor Veena Sahajwalla’s eyes light up when she talks about growing up in Mumbai, India. One of her cherished memories is trawling the bazaars with her mother and soaking up the spirit of creative entrepreneurship that thrives there.

“What was truly exciting was watching people make a living out of fixing broken things through sheer creativity and curiosity,” Veena says. “I was very inspired by them. I also saw the value in repairing something which is why, to a certain extent, I hate throwing anything away.”

I hope that by sharing my childhood stories, I can inspire young people to start thinking about science, engineering, waste and recycling as a potential career.

Veena too is an inspiration in her own right. Her father was a civil engineer and Veena’s regular visits to his construction sites sparked her interest in materials science. That led to a master’s degree and PhD in engineering, and being tapped on the shoulder by Australia’s national science and research agency, CSIRO.

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Read the inspiring stories of our other recipients and discover how they’re making a profound and positive contribution to their communities.

In 2005, Veena won the prestigious Eureka Prize for her invention of green steel, an eco-friendly process for using recycled tyres in steel production. Her invention has been patented around the world and has diverted millions of old tyres from landfills. She is renowned for pioneering the high temperature transformation of waste in the production of a new generation of ‘green materials.’ In 2018 Veena launched the world's first e-waste MICROfactory and in 2019 she launched her plastics and green ceramics MICROfactories. A model that she hopes to soon roll out across Australia and the world.

Veena is currently the founding director of the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology at the University of New South Wales. In November 2021, she was named 2022 NSW Australian of the Year for her work in pioneering research into waste.

“I’m humbled by the recognition and thrilled by the opportunities this award will give me,” she says. “I see my role as helping bring science and technology to the forefront so every Australian and industries that are working on a waste recycling solution can achieve their own milestones for recycling.”

You've made massive strides in the environment with green steel and e-waste. Where are you focusing your attention over the next five years?
“One of the big things we're looking at is waste batteries. The inside of a battery has complex materials which makes it challenging from a recycling perspective. But as more electronics enter the world, there’s a greater need to regenerate these materials.

“We need to respect the fact that the resources required to make batteries are finite. If we start thinking that way then we’ll also respect the fact that a non functioning and obsolete batteries shouldn’t be treated as waste for landfills but rather as useful resources.

“This is why I coined the term ‘microrecycling.’ We’ve now received five-year funding from the Australian Research Council to study the microrecycling of waste batteries, which is wonderful.”

The next frontier is addressing the demands of modern society in a way that’s still respectful of materials and the environment.

How would you describe creativity and innovation in the recycling industry?
“Creativity exists in so many different ways in this industry. In the case of recycling waste batteries, we need to overhaul our mindsets and rethink the entire approach so we can keep coming up with better solutions for example, MICROfactorie technologies.

“A big part of creativity in my world as a scientist and engineer has been thinking about different elements as a whole. I have to think about both MICROrecycling science and MICROfactories, how they will work and the quality of our green materials and products. We have to be constantly creative in thinking up new ways to do things so we’re always respecting our people and our planet.”

You also run a mentoring program for girls in science. What guidance do you give them?
“Science and technology is multifaceted. I always advise them to approach a problem with the aim of creating a holistic and real-world, practical solution. And then think about who to collaborate with to make it happen. Many different things have to come together to deliver environmental and socal benefits to create impact. It’s not easy but it’s very exciting.”

What have been your biggest challenge and biggest triumph?
To me, there’s no challenge too big or too hard. Everything I take on has to be a big challenge or it’s not worth pursuing. Like the complexity of recycling batteries, for example.

“The triumph is getting people excited about our solution. For me, every conversation is an opportunity to plant a seed. Even if we don’t collaborate at that point in time, I want the conversation to simmer at the back of their mind.

“I've had people contact me months or years later saying, "I finally feel I can pick up our conversation again because my business is now venturing into this area." This is important because it means what I’ve said to them previously has stayed with them.”

Australia Post is category sponsor of the Australian of the Year Award and we’re proud to share inspiring stories like yours with the rest of Australia. What comes to mind when you think about Australia Post?
“Australia Post brings back memories of my life in Mumbai in that it holds that same spirit of discovery. I remember visiting a Post Office in Tassie that sold second-hand things and finding a beautiful Mediterranean cookbook. This thrilled me because it was the last place I’d imagine finding something like that. These days, you don't go into a Post Office just to do regular business. You also go there to discover things. That’s the beauty of life and what I love about the Post Office.”

Image credit: Anna Kucera

Australia Post is category sponsor of the Australian of the Year Award. We’re proud to partner with the National Australia Day Council and showcase the inspiring stories of remarkable everyday Australians.