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Upcycling: Using the Magic of Composites to Create Environmental and Social Benefits

By: , Posted on: November 18, 2016

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

Caroline Baillie and Randika Jayasinghe’s new edition Green Composites: Natural and waste-based composites for a sustainable future introduces us to a new and necessary development for composite materials – the consideration of not only the economic and environmental consequences of what we do, but also the social. Both the environmental and the social impact of new materials development are profound. Some environmentalists spend every free moment cleaning up beaches from the mounds of plastic waste that is washed up – plastics which we have created and which destroy ocean life. Composites in many ways make things worse by mixing up elements that could otherwise be recycled separately. Some criticise natural fibre composites for encapsulating natural materials that can biodegrade, into a plastic tomb that cannot.

The social implications are no less worrying and complicated. Social consequences of our developments do not only connect to environmental impact – through waste and health hazards for example. Developments in materials are also directly connected to the impact of the underlying mining and extractive industries on local communities, and indirectly to the impact of commodification on our lives, and an increasing desire to possess more and more ‘objects’ as a measure of our worth.  These intangible lifestyle consequences seem so remote from the science we do in our labs that we don’t give them a second (or even a first) thought. However, there is a growing consciousness about the impact of engineering on social justice. The Engineering, social justice and peace network was established in 2004 to bring together those engineers, scientists and other professionals and students, who believed that engineering should be developed to promote rather than diminish justice.

But what does this look like in practice? Caroline Baillie, as co-founder of ESJP, decided that she should practice what she preached and in considered whether her composites materials knowledge could somehow be shared with those who would not normally have access to such knowledge. She observed the informal ‘waste pickers’ in Argentina who collected waste for a living, and sold the plastic to be recycled (Baillie et al, 2010). Baillie wondered if these groups would benefit from knowing how to upcycle those plastics into composite products, to sell for a larger profit. The organisation ‘Waste for Life’ was born (wasteforlife.org). Ten years on and Waste for Life is going strong – Baillie’s team are now in Sri Lanka where her Green Composite co-editor Jayasinghe is managing her project on the ground.

Un-managed solid waste is a serious social, environmental, health and political concern in urban areas of Sri Lanka.  Haphazard waste dumping of plastics on roadsides, waterways and abandoned lands, and toxic open burning of plastics negatively impact health, quality of life and are detrimental to general indexes of social well-being. But a unique opportunity exists for local economic development through up-cycling these discarded materials. Findings from the team’s three-year Sri Lankan feasibility study (Jayasinghe et al, 2013) indicate the presence of multiple layers of individuals, small-scale recyclers and community-based organizations that work with waste.  However, product design, prototyping and manufacturing are rare due to the lack of affordable machinery, technological skills and knowledge of manufacturing processes and design protocols. These are key in enabling the development and longevity of successful cottage industries for the production of green, waste-based composites (Thamae and Baillie, 2009). Baillie and Jayasinghe are currently developing a unique education program and supporting the development of community-based waste-based composite manufacturing businesses, positively contributing to local economies and environmental health. In Sri Lanka, Waste for Life and the University of Western Australia (UWA) has teamed up with the Universities of Moratuwa and Sri Jayewardenepura in the Western province, and the University of Jaffna in the Northern Province, to support the development of life giving, local waste-based composite businesses. There are many technical challenges to solve and the team welcomes advice from anyone who is willing to share their knowledge with the local communities who need it most.

The team travels to Argentina to introduce a manufacturing stream to the collection, sorting, and selling processes of the cartoneros or local waste pickers

green composites

Green Composites, 2nd Edition; Waste and nature-based materials for a sustainable future

  • Provides insights into the changes in the Industry, including a greater understanding of noticing that the bottom line is influenced by poor social relations and negative social impact
  • Presents tactics any industry should consider to make engineering part of the solution instead of the problem
  • Includes case study chapters that connect materials engineering in a social context
  • Covers waste green composites, fueling a new direction of research for many Universities

The book is available now from the Elsevier store. Save up to 30% on your own copy, enter STC215 at the checkout.

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Materials Science

The highly interdisciplinary field of materials science examines elements of applied physics and chemistry, as well as chemical, mechanical, civil, and electrical engineering. Nanoscience and nanotechnology in particular have yielded major innovations in this area, such as graphene and carbon nanotubes. Elsevier’s authoritative content in this area ranges from undergraduate textbooks to multi-volume reference works investigating the relationships between the structure of materials and their properties. Our journals (including Materials Today), books, and eBooks help researchers stay abreast of developments in this swiftly advancing field, coving major sub-disciplines like energy and power; metals and alloys; ceramics; composite materials; polymer science and biomaterials; interdisciplinary materials science; and structural materials.

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