Even before he graduated from ANU, Ryan Pike was getting to work developing sustainable solutions to address Australia's medical waste problem.
Every day, truckloads of medical waste end up in landfill. Surgical items, bed curtains, gowns, packaging, single-use equipment - all dumped at rubbish sites around the country.
"You could classify it as a humanitarian problem right at our front doorstep," says Ryan Pike.
This mountain of waste isn't recycled or repurposed. "You take it away to a thermal incineration plant, or take it away to an autoclave, but at the end of the day it always ends up in landfill," Ryan says.
But there are other solutions, which he is keen to see become widely adopted.
Ryan, who in July graduated in absentia from The Australian National University (ANU) with a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Engineering (Honours), joined Canberra company 180 Waste Group as an intern in 2019. During his internship he secured provisional approval for a treatment method that enables hospitals to dispose of medical waste on-site. Now, he's pioneering sustainable engineering projects to recycle clinical waste.
Ryan has always enjoyed solving curious problems. As a kid he was interested in technology, tools and processes, and made remote control hobby cars for fun. At school he did well in maths and physics and a double degree in science and engineering allowed him to pursue those interests. "I saw that the next wave of problems that we're going to face are going to be very multifaceted, they're going to not just require an electronics engineer or a civil engineer, rather it's going to be an integrated system," he says of his decision to major in mechatronics.
In 2019, Ryan joined an Engineers Without Borders program in Cambodia, which he describes as a "pivotal moment" that shaped the rest of his degree and the start of his career. He was based on a small island, where villagers had been importing chemicals to spray on crops. "They thought they were spraying medicine on plants, when in reality, they were spraying quite nasty chemicals and losing a lot of yield," Ryan says. The students developed a natural pesticide solution that was safer to use.
"That's what made me open to problems that were obviously social issues. And one of them happened to be this medical waste problem happening in Australia."
Reducing the amount of medical waste that ends up in landfill has several flow-on benefits, Ryan says, including limiting the risk posed by having such waste transported by road. But his long-term goal is to simplify solutions for the repurposed waste to enter the circular economy, a concept that aims to disrupt the traditional journey of production to consumption to waste, and instead focuses on reusing and recycling as much as possible.
After completing his internship, Ryan stayed on at 180 Waste Group as its Chief Technology Officer, balancing the job while finishing the remaining units of his degree. In that time he's secured collaborations, including with capstone projects at ANU, to find end-of-life solutions for hospital and at-home dialysis waste, and sanitary waste. One project, in partnership with Baxter Healthcare, developed solutions to process dialysis waste and turn it into reusable products.
"One person per day can produce around 8kg of dialysis waste, and more than 5,000 tonnes of plastic product is used per year in Australia. We did a conservative estimate of clinical waste from public and private hospitals and it was around 43,000 tonnes per year," Ryan says.
"With Baxter, for instance, we were able to separate the dialysis products into high-density polyethylene and PVC, and make plastic sheets and plastic-infused concrete cylinders."
The recycled plastic can then be used to make objects such as plastic fencing, furniture or plastic sheets. It can also replace rocks and sand in construction applications such as concrete, asphalt and bricks.
The capstone projects have led to a spin-off company, 180 Recycle Group, which Ryan sees as developing an underlying architecture that connects waste generators with manufacturers to feed waste residue directly into the supply chain.
"I think at the moment in a circular economy there's all these people that want to work together, but no one really knows how to connect the dots," Ryan says.
"Our vision, and I'm very confident that we will achieve it given the right adoption rate across Australia, is that we can divert all medical waste from landfill."