14 March 2018

Scarcity: Can waste create value?

by Akshay Kakar, Dr Elammaran Jayamani and Muhammad Khusairy bin Bakri

Scarcities and waste of resources have become one of the major environmental, political, industrial, agricultural and social issues in the world today. Our hunger for consuming natural resources has doubled in the past five decades. At the rate we are going, we will need to utilise a couple of planets by 2030 to sustain our lifestyles.

Unfortunately, we have not found any other planet similar to Earth. For now, we will have to make necessary changes for our future generations’ wellbeing where they are also able to enjoy a sustainable development that does not compromise their needs.

Although our appetite for natural capital is ever increasing, we often forget that sustaining our demands is becoming ever more challenging. Our demands and activities in such enormous scale have global impacts and are changing our entire planet from bad to worse. In addition, the constant increase in human population multiplies our reliance on these natural resources.

We had shaped our past and are moulding our present. We are in the position to influence our future responsibly and sustainably. How in a world that is so desperately short of resources can we ensure that there is enough for our future generations?

Our mission is to make sure that the scarce resources including land, timber, food, water and other natural resources are sufficient for generations to come. If we place our planet’s history over a span of 1 year, it would be as though we have existed only for 23 minutes and consumed 33% of the resources in one fifth of a second.

The products we buy, waste we produce, clothes we wear and even the food that we eat are made of natural resources and bring changes to our environment by increasing the carbon footprint. To fulfil our mission, we need to advance our economic development by using readily and abundantly available sustainable materials and products.

Our demand for timber is expected to nearly double by the year 2050. In spite of the high value of timber, we continue to waste about 30% of it every year which is enough to build homes for hundreds of thousands of homeless people. If we really care about our fellow citizens of the world, we need to reduce waste, grow more trees, reuse agricultural waste and exploit renewable sources to build robust and sustainable materials.

The question that keeps researchers burning the midnight oil is how do we reuse agricultural waste and use timber more efficiently so that we are able to develop technologies to turn today’s scarcity into tomorrow’s opportunities. We are proud to declare that it is possible. Today, paper is one of the most recycled materials in the world with a recycling rate of 72%.

We are now able to produce materials using timber and agricultural wastes that are greener than recycled paper and stronger than metals with the same weight. These findings have attracted fellow scientists in the western world during a recent international conference held in Galati, Romania on Polymer Processing in Engineering, September 2017 (Analysis of Acacia Wood Reinforced PLA/PHA Blend Composites – https://goo.gl/6PzSeQ).

Creating a spark of interest among scientists is great, but not enough. So we ask you and the manufacturers, ‘Are you ready to embrace this new technological change?’ or would you prefer to let our old ways destroy us?

Akshay Kakar and Muhammad Khusairy bin Bakri are PhD students (Higher Degree Researcher) and Dr Elammaran Jayamani is a senior lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. Their research looks into environmentally friendly, biodegradable and bio-sustainable materials. They can be reached via email at akakar@swinburne.edu.my, mbakri@swinburne.edu.my or ejayamani@swinburne.edu.my.