Monday, 21 March 2016

Sustainable Circular Economy: an idea to steal

Following the increasing interest and discussion about the Circular Economy Strategy that was recently launched by the European Commission a workshop entitled “The Sustainable Circular Economy – new opportunities for raw materials, chemicals and water?" was organised by Cefic, ERRIN and the East & North Finland region on Tuesday 15 March 2016. The event took place in Brussels and brought together different contributions to answer questions relating to the new opportunities provided by raw materials and industrial symbiosis, and regional support for innovation and competitiveness. The workshop also focused on EU policy and the role of research and innovation to enable a more sustainable circular economy. 

According to Grwegorz Radziejewski from Commissioner Jyrki Katainen’s cabinet: “The circular economy brings a win-win scenario, as it reduces waste and the use of the resources.  It represents an opportunity to the European economy to modernise itself and to enhance competitiveness.”

The proposed EU package will stimulate Europe's transition towards a circular economy, which will bring benefits for both the environment and the economy, providing sustainable solutions for (and from) the chemicals sector. The European proposal carries profound changes for innovation and investments, especially on waste management and recycling. Radziejewski also emphasised that the circular economy strategy will change the way products are designed, produced and consumed, bringing empowerment and knowledge to consumers.

“Diversification of chemical feedstock and better sustainability are essential to bring ecological alternatives to the chemicals sector,” highlighted Reinhard Buescher from the European Commission’s DG GROWTH. This means a better and wide use of sustainable oil and natural gas, sustainable minerals and biomass, recycled plastics, and the re-use of sustainable CO2. In terms of chemical production, it is important to invest in better worker security measures, environmental protection, resource efficiency, CO2 reduction, and innovation. “We need to achieve innovation thought new forms of symbioses, production and use of resources, for example, by replacing some substances for others that reduce the impact on water, air and soil,” explained Buescher. Once again, the importance of consumer information was reinforced, as well as the need to define quality standards for recycling plastics, better waste collection and sorting criteria, and the creation of new markets for secondary raw materials.

For 2016-2017, Europe can expect the launch of the European Sustainable Chemicals Service Centre, the adoption of the Fertilizer Regulation, a mapping of standards in support of sustainable chemicals, the adoption of a new Plastic Strategy (with DG ENV), among other initiatives.

Industry perspective
From the chemical industry perspective, the integration of sustainability, innovation and technology are fundamental to the development of a circular economy, which cannot be achieved only through regulations and business standards. Advanced technologies are fundamental to ensure better use of resources, new methods of production and recycling alternatives, in order to increase competitiveness in the global market. The role of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), such as SPIRE, can be emphasised here in the creation of new synergies and solutions along the various value chains, innovation networks, industrial and geographical sectors of the European economy.

Taking in consideration the growing world demand for chemicals and also the increasing volume of production and exports of chemicals and plastics by the United States and China, as competitors and leading countries in trade and innovation, Hartwing Wendt, Cefic’s Executive Director of Sustainability (pictured speaking above), stressed some of the key drivers impacting the relative decline of Europe’s chemical industry.

The European sector suffers from a feedstock disadvantage, reduced local demand from EU manufacturing industry, and changes in specific sectors that have effectively moved out of Europe (textiles and electronics, for example). In general, these drivers require the development of new products and business models. Besides that, there is a societal pressure to reduce the carbon intensity of feedstock and commodities. In this scenario, the circular economy seems the best option to deal with these challenges, and one good example could be the use of CO2 as an alternative carbon source.

Water not waste
A general consensus from the workshop related to the need to reduce waste and transform it into a source of raw material. Several Horizon 2020 projects were cited as answers, for example, to waste in the water sector and to energy efficiency demand including: Resyntex, Maslowaten, and Cyto-water.

For Violeta Kuzmickaite, from the WssTP technology platform, water is the most commonly used solvent on this planet. “Water is not a waste, but a raw material. Water is already circular,” she claimed showing its importance to establishing a sustainable circular economy.

An Urban Water Agenda 2030, presented by Pieter de Jong, on behalf of Wetsus – the European Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Water Technology, is based on four main challenges:
  • Water quality
  • Scarcity
  • Floods, and
  • Financing of infrastructure.
The agenda covers water efficiency, nutrient recovery, and water reuse, and has inspired the development of some projects: Hydrowashr, for the minimum water use for hand washing, and Value from Urine, for ammonia recovery.

Circular regions
The workshop also presented case studies on new businesses and opportunities provided by raw materials and industrial symbiosis.  Lapland region, for example, has potential to become one of the leading regions in the world in the sustainable exploitation of natural resources. This part of Finland has benefited from large investment in mining and it is focused on refining Arctic natural resources in a socially and ecologically sustainable manner, combined with high value added.

Castilla y Leon, in Spain, is another god example of regional strategy for circular economy and green jobs, involving government, universities, social agents and clusters. The region has introduced alternatives and new sustainable extraction and process technologies for mining bringing new markets, growth and jobs.

Finally, the Dutch region of Fryslân is another case of biobased and circular economy development: an example of what has been done in this region comes from the concrete industry, which now employs down-cycling rather than recycling.

All the presentations made at the workshop can be accessed here.

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