I
f we told you that there was a way to convert used rubber tyres into new steel, would you believe us? Material Engineers like Veena Sahajwalla are pioneering ways to revive waste in ways we never thought possible. It’s re-shaping how we look at materials, re-defining what ‘waste’ is and putting us on path to a truly zero-waste future.

To cut to the chase of the video, Sahajwalla’s seemingly miraculous conversion of rubber tyres into virgin steel – a world-first right here in Australia – is based on the fact that all matter is composed of the same library of atoms, ‘materialising’ as different materials under different conditions. Or something like that. Credentialled boffins can feel free to elaborate.

Sahajwalla’s achievements open up a world of endless possibilities for product designers and the multi-billion dollar global recycling industry, but what does it mean for us as individual consumers? What can we take from this that will make a difference right now?

It’s about refining how we look at things. Waste isn’t ‘waste’ until we waste it.

In nature, the concept of waste doesn’t exist. All things – from fallen leaves to bat droppings – become part of another process (fallen leaves add nutrition to soil and bat droppings get eaten by blind salamanders, in case you were wondering). We humans, however, we’re good at wasting things. Actually, it’s safe to say we positively excel at it. It’s estimated that over 4 trillion kilograms of waste is generated in the 34 OECD nations every year.

The problem, of course, stems from our ‘throw-away’ culture and the ease with which many of us acquire new and shiny things. We We’re doing it all wrong. And what the likes of Sahajwalla are showing us is that

The things we currently waste  – like can actually be valuable resources. It’s not the rubbish that’s the problem, it’s our attitudes. It all starts with design. If products are designed for continual reuse, there’s no need for them to ever become waste. So many things are made for limited use only, so as a result it’s understandable that most us have just accepted that it’s okay to throw things away and put a new one in its place.

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At the moment, most of us have a very closed-minded view about waste. Garbage falls into three categories defined by our council rubbish bins:

Recycling. Rubbish. Organics.

No brainer, right? As long as all our glass, cardboard and plastics are under that yellow lid, we are doing our bit.

Well… There’s a bit more to it:

Waste isn’t waste until we waste it

If our goal is to strive towards zero waste, the system needs a bit of a rejig. Remember the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle?  Well, for a zero waste system there is two more:

Refusing is the big one. If we don’t have the product to start with there isn’t the potential for it to cause any waste. Whether you are in business, a consumer, or just tired of taking out the trash, it’s important to take the time to see how the five Rs fit into your life. Here’s a little inspiration for you…

Silo by Joost is a zero-waste café in Melbourne. Serving up local, seasonal, organic produce and not a rubbish bin in sight, all goods are delivered in reusable containers, bottles and kegs where they are returned to the supplier for refill. All organic waste is dehydrated and turned into fertilizer and given back to the farmers to continue the cycle.

Subaru’s Indiana factory recently celebrated ten years of being waste-free. They have set an example for other car manufactures, with GM, Honda and Volkswagen all making moves to follow suit – influencing other industries as well.

Upcycling has been an inspiration for artist, designers and keen DIY-ers and Freecycle communites continue to grow as people begin to understand that moving towards a waste-free life is the way to go.

All the things we waste aren’t really waste at all, they are just wasted opportunity.

All of our waste has value. Whether it be reusing it, turning it into something new, or being the inspiration for us to change the system.

Recycling is great, don’t get us wrong, but if there’s an alternative that is ultimately better than recycling we ain’t gonna say no. If we can extend the functional life of a product before it ends up in the wheelie bin it means we can keep it (and its replacements) out of landfill for a little longer. By striving for a zero waste society from the get go, we can create a system that means we are preventing waste from ever being created in the first place.