As a conversation piece, the circular economy is on everyone’s lips. It’s not just a buzzword. With the global population predicted to approach 9 billion people by 2030, we are using more resources than the planet can provide. Our future depends on reusing what we have in a sustainable way. Not only are we using more resources, we are producing large amounts of waste, especially municipal solid waste (MSW) as more and more people move from rural areas to urban ones to primarily seek opportunities for economic development.
Currently, MSW is mainly landfilled, composted or incinerated. However, around 50% of urban waste corresponds to the organic fraction, which is rich in interesting molecules to recover or convert into a variety of valuable consumer products or compounds for industrial applications. The concept of the circular economy sees value in these waste flows and re-routes them back into the economic process.
When circular economy principles are embraced, it’s good for both business and our planet. While environmental disruption creates vulnerabilities from material scarcity or fluctuating commodity prices; actively managing our consumption creates infrastructure efficiencies, opportunities for innovation, and business resilience.
To address this, the Bio-based Industries (BBI) Joint Undertaking a €3.7 billion institutional public-private partnership between the European Union and the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC), has encouraged bio-based industry stakeholders to move away from the linear take-make-dispose model by using waste as a feedstock to contribute to a circular economic model.
In fact, in the past five years since it launched, BBI JU has played a crucial role in delivering investment that clearly states the importance and potential of bio-based industries to the future of Europe, and perhaps most crucially helps de-risk projects by providing EU funding and helping mobilise and leverage private investments. Essentially, it has helped to maximise the potential of Europe’s bioeconomy assets. This is important because the bioeconomy works across all industrial sectors – from agriculture and medicine to manufacturing and energy.
An innovative bio-based economy offers significant opportunities for the development of a more circular economy and the optimal use of resources to meet the needs of modern society in terms of health and well-being, the environment, food, energy, materials and chemicals. Fortunately, innovation is one resource that is unlimited, and the BBI JU has supported a variety of projects that are turning waste, that would otherwise be incinerated or end up in landfill, into valuable products.
To give just one example of a project supported by BBI JU, EMBRACED is a consortium comprising 13 partners from six European countries. The project is aimed at establishing an integrated biorefinery in Amsterdam to recover the cellulosic fraction of post-consumer absorbent hygiene products (AHP) waste and produce bio-based and biodegradable products. AHP waste consists of items such as nappies coming from hospitals, care homes, households, nurseries and kindergartens.
FaterSMART, a company located in Pescara, Italy, is leading the EMBRACED project and aiming to recycle this AHP waste. As an aside, FaterSMART has developed its own innovation which is able to recover the waste stream and turn it into plastic, cellulose and super absorbent polymer.
“The next step through the BBI JU EMBRACED project is the further valorisation of the secondary raw materials and of all the process by-products, as a perfect example of circular economy,” says FaterSMART Research and Development Director Marcello Somma.
Describing the feedstock-to-recycling process of the project, Somma says that components such as cellulose, plastic and wastewater are obtained from the AHP pre-treatment stage. This cellulose is then converted into bio-based polyesters which can go into film applications. The cellulose can also be converted into bio-based materials that go into medical applications.
In addition to this, materials such as plastic and wastewater can be turned into products like furnishings and building materials.
Projects that harness waste streams like EMBRACED will have an important role to play in helping to meet the EU’s sustainability goals. And with AHP waste already making up around 15-25% of residual waste in some EU territories, it is badly needed.
The bio-based building blocks, materials and products that will be generated by the EMBRACED biorefinery are not yet ready to market, but the results already achieved in their production are very promising and their value in the market is very high, according to Somma. He also maintains that consumers have given positive feedback to the project.
“The development of this ambitious project requires relevant R&D investments that would have not been possible without BBI JU support. And this is not only related to their financial support: BBI JU efforts in promoting the development of the bio-based economy and facilitating networking among all relevant stakeholders in the bio-based value chains are of fundamental help for creating the needed framework conditions for a sound development of breakthrough projects in this field,” Somma concludes.
There are other projects that are using waste as a feedstock to contribute to circular models that the BBI JU are helping to support. For example, BBI JU-funded project URBIOFIN is developing an integrated biorefinery for the transformation of MSW into new bio-based products.
The project has a budget of €15 million and consists of 16 members. URBIOFIN’s overall aim is to demonstrate the techno-economic and environmental viability of the conversion of the organic fraction of MSW into different bioproducts (bioethanol, biochemicals, biomethane, bioplastics and additives) with a high industrial interest.
“The funding provided by BBI JU to the beneficiaries of URBIOFIN has been essential to cross the valley of death, to make the municipal solid waste biorefinery a reality as well as to reduce the risk posed by the large investment made in this demonstration project, prior to implementing industrial facilities,” says Cristina Álvarez Requena, coordinator of the R&D Projects Area at URBASER (a member of the URBIOFIN consortium).
As well as the URBIOFIN and EMBRACED projects, the BARBARA project is also helping to deliver a sustainable circular bio-based economy. In fact, the BARBARA project is turning a lab-scale research concept into a feasible and growth-orientated market opportunity to use food waste in 3D printing and automotive industries.
“Thanks to these and other BBI JU projects, the use of biowaste resources to produce everyday products is becoming a reality,” says Phillipe Mengal, Executive Director of the BBI JU. “By incentivising the development of new innovations and technologies involved in waste management, we are spurring a transition towards a more sustainable future and actively contributing to the European Green Deal.”