Imagine a futuristic construction site without waste, with no material delivery lead times and with a sustainable safe working environment.

Isaac Asimov wrote about robots before they were commercialised – but one example of the ways in which modern science fiction works are often the inspiration for our current innovations.

In the world of Star Trek, resource generation and recycling is simplified. Teleportation solves the logistical tyranny of distance. The food machines generate no wastage, as you can order exactly what you like, and in small desirable quantities. Disintegration offers the solutions to troublesome waste streams, surplus materials or redundant structures and space junk.

Of the future technologies surrounding recycling and recyclable materials issues in the short and long-term future, some are established in the market place, while others may seem far-fetched. There are also some surprises currently in research and development.

Established waste avoidance and recycling technologies, although not all are fully commercialised across all of Australia, include:

  • Bins using barcode scanners to organise materials into different waste streams
  • Green walls and even farms on building rooftops
  • Reverse vending machines, where waste goes in and drink bottles come out
  • Waste to energy facilities powering homes with electricity instead of digging up more landfills and using coal-fired power stations
  • Builders sharing midway logistical centres with warehouses and forklifts to reduce transportation time into the CBD from major material manufacturing centres
  • Fuel alternatives derived from waste
  • Robot bricklayers

On the research and development front, we see:

  • Carbon nano rods in concrete additives removing the need for steel reinforcement, creating curved sea walls able to mitigate rising sea levels
  • Glass crushed into our road surfaces to improve traffic braking times
  • Roads that act as solar power cells replacing our need for an electricity grid
  • Shredded tyres in our bridge buttresses (currently used in bomb proof walls at army checkpoints)

There are, of course, concepts that still seem to be taken straight out of science fiction. Given the technological advances made in recent years, however, it would not be surprising to someday see such seemingly far-fetched ideas as these come to fruition:

  • Entire building towers printed by 3D computers
  • Buildings grown from a seedpod or self-assembly units
  • Zero-gravity zones instead of scaffolding
  • Disintegration of surplus materials
  • Teleportation of building materials to and from sites
  • Black holes used as “space landfills” for our current space junk problem

In the short term we need to consider:

  • The future recycling methods needed for the toxic materials used in 3D printing
  • The small fibres in medium-density fibreboards that can cause breathing problems during manufacturing when cutting and at end of life demolition stage
  • Limited natural resources like sand, limestone and other basic raw materials
  • The Pacific Ocean’s floating plastic waste dump and its impact on our other oceans

In the long term we need to consider:

  • Closed loop economics with shared assets and components that can be reused in a wider range of machines than their design initial purpose
  • Disruptive innovations like teleportation, disintegration and artificial intelligence
  • Growing population numbers, organ transplants and bio-organic waste disposal

Clearly, some of these ideas are far off, if they will ever be realised. But then again, who would have seen some of the amazing innovations we enjoy today as recently as a few decades ago?