University of Auckland’s Master of Engineering alumnus from India tackles global waste plastic problem
From studying a Master of Engineering at the University of Auckland to being the Technical Lead of Nilo, a New Zealand company that is tackling the global waste plastic problem head on, former international student Adi Rudrakar has come a long way.
Nilo is a New Zealand organisation strongly aligned to tikanga (Māori cultural beliefs and values), including kaitiakitanga – the belief that we are all guardians of our environment.
The company’s mission is to see ‘the end of plastic waste’ by providing a way for all plastic to be processed and repurposed on a global scale. It is developing technology that can turn all types of plastic waste – including currently unrecyclable ocean and landfill plastic – into industrial adhesives that have several applications, including the manufacturing of wood boards, plywood, MDF, and laminated products. The patented process is clean and low energy, with the potential to combine with other waste streams such as construction and demolition waste, wood, textiles, and e-waste.
As Nilo’s Technical Lead, Adi Rudrakar is responsible for the organisation’s primary machinery and secondary equipment. His role also includes streamlining the process of obtaining waste plastics, developing the process, and optimising it to transform this waste plastic into adhesives for wood-based products.
This is crucial work, considering the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that in as little as 30 years, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish.
For Adi, the journey to doing this work began with his love for taking a hands-on approach to learning. He loved being surrounded by machines in his family’s workshop that made crankshafts for trucks and learned much about the world of machines from his father and grandfather.
Unsurprisingly, Adi’s love for this practical style of learning, coupled with a growing interest in science and the then up and coming field of mechatronics, led him to study a Master of Engineering at the University of Auckland.
“My aptitude was more towards mechanical [engineering] because I could be more hands on. I am still pretty involved in a lot of core engineering, hands-on work. It gives me the freedom to make things. That was my main motivation to study mechanical engineering,” Adi says.
Why study in New Zealand?
When researching his options for master’s study, Adi explored several study options in several countries, from Australia and New Zealand to Germany and the United States. Australia and New Zealand were top of the list, and he got offers of place from universities in both countries.
“What pulled me to New Zealand was its sheer natural beauty and outdoors lifestyle, and work life balance. I had also learned about the University of Auckland’s strong research programme and the exposure [it offers] to research opportunities,” Adi says.
“I figured Auckland would be the right fit for me, also considering I was used to living in a place with lots of people!”
Exposure to start-up-like environment at university
Being part of the CIE’s programmes offered Adi a learning experience and an introduction to the world of entrepreneurship.
“We started off with discussions on the innovation ecosystem, and learned what it takes to make a viable and scalable business idea. It brought together people from lots of different backgrounds, ages, and life experiences, Adi says.
Adi with fellow participants of the CIE Summer Lab at the University of Auckland
Solving a global problem
It was also a CIE-run weekend bootcamp focused on raising awareness of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs) that got him thinking about solving a global environmental challenge like waste plastics.
“That was my first real exposure to the long-term goals set by the UN that all organisations should try and achieve. Now being a part of Nilo, I look back to that. Everything we do has a major impact on the environment in the long run,” he says.
Adi was so taken by the idea of helping solve a global challenge that he decided to do his master’s thesis on sorting waste plastics, which has been a major global issue for many years now. His thesis had him identifying various kinds of plastics, the economic value in each of them, and how they could be sorted in viable ways so that companies could sort, process, and develop recycled products from waste plastics.
One of his professors shared Adi’s thesis on with industry peers, and in classic New Zealand style, after a number of ‘coffee chats’ aka interviews, Adi started working at Nilo in late 2019.
Work with Nilo
At Nilo, Adi is responsible for the maintenance and optimisation of all the company’s equipment that is used to transform waste plastic into adhesives for wood-based products. He also works with Nilo’s team of chemical engineers and polymer chemists to develop better processes and supports experimental solutions with the right equipment for the task, while managing health and safety needs.
What Adi loves most about his job is how every day can be a new and exciting challenge.
“This technology [at Nilo] can be a major thing for waste plastics. People often say cut out plastic, which isn’t easily possible. The main thing we need to be aware of is how we can turn post-consumer waste plastic into something useful and stop that waste from polluting the environment in the first place.
“Utilising waste plastic is a major opportunity to bring about change in the world. And if I need to put in a 120 or even a 150 per cent [to achieve that], I am happy to do that!” he says.
Making New Zealand home
While settling into a new country and culture isn’t always easy, Adi immersed himself into New Zealand life and culture at every opportunity and made new friends. He gave himself four years to understand whether New Zealand was the right fit for him.
While at university, he participated in a number of extra-curricular activities. He was the social media manager for International Students Association Auckland club, co-ordinator for both Auckland University Students Association and the Engineering PG Buddy programme. He was also a part of the basketball and mixed martial arts clubs and counts himself as a keen rugby fan, even learning the All Blacks haka.
“In year one, you understand whether you are made for the country. In year two, you understand if the country is made for you. By the end of four years, you either make the country your home or you don’t,” he says.
Adi clearly did, and the mark of his newly-minted Kiwi identity has to be his love for pies and the opportunity to be outdoors at every given chance.
“I have grown really fond of pies, my go-to is a mean-as steak and cheese!” he says.