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Towards the Circular Economy: 30 European Research Projects in Resource Recovery and Recycling

During the 20th century, worldwide material consumption increased in eight times. By 2050, global resource use is expected to have tripled. Throughout its evolution, our industrial economy has been following a linear model. It means that the economy mostly consumes resources extracted from our natural environment (such as fossil fuels, aggregates, minerals and forest products), and then disposes these resources back into the environment as used products or as emissions that contribute to pollution. As a result the world faces an unprecedented number of environmental challenges, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and water and land pollution. Next to the environmental concerns, there is a growing challenge that many resources are or will become scarce. The linear economic model has prevailed until now, because resources were cheap and abundant. In the last decade, however, prices for natural resources increased or became more volatile. Thus, more and more businesses are squeezed between rising and less predictable prices in resource markets on the one hand and growing material consumption and high competition on consumer markets on the other.

The new concept of circular economy aims to address resource scarcity and environmental impacts. In a circular economy rather than material being thrown away after use, it is reclaimed and reused or recycled as secondary raw materials for new products (or for organic waste – as soil nutrients), with energy being generated from any residual waste that cannot be recycled. The circular economy intends to eradicate waste not just from manufacturing processes, but systematically, throughout the life cycles and uses of products and their components. It aims to become a new paradigm that essentially changes the functions of resources in the economy: waste material of one industrial process will be input for another, and products will be repaired, reused and recycled.

The shift from our current economy to a circular one will take many years.  In order to put the circular economy into action and accelerate its large-scale transition, different changes, including social, institutional, infrastructural and technological should be made. From the technological perspective, it is new innovations in resource recovery and waste recycling that will be playing a key role in transition to the circular economy. As in other science-dependent sectors, the main source of breakthroughs in recycling and recovery will be most probably basic and applied research. Today all over the world there is a large number of research projects working on new technological options with high potential of making valuable contributions towards transition to circular economy. Below, I would like to present 30 European research projects, which aim to make technological advances in different sectors of waste recycling and material recovery industry.

Recycling of Non-Hazardous Waste

CLIPP project aims to promote the valuable recycling resource concept for industrial painted and laminated packages (injected parts and extruded films), nowadays considered as a problem, promoting their recycling in the original application (closed loop cycle) and minimizing the environmental risks and impacts.

RECALL proposes the first application of a recently proven new recycling process for post-consumer waste of absorbent hygiene products (used baby diapers, sanitary napkins, etc.), turning them into new raw materials, plastic and cellulose.

FURNITREUSE  project is developing an innovative method for recycling used chip board furniture and plastics by producing new environment friendly reusable multipurpose composite material. Each year thousands of tons of office and domestic furniture made of particle board end their lives being thrown away by their users. At present there is no effective method for utilizing such industrial waste except for shredding and combustion.

The recycling processes for polystyrene, which is widely used as are packaging for foodstuffs, are not yet well developed. Hence, the aim of PolySolve project is to develop an environmentally friendly technique to process polystyrene waste into a high quality product, which would be comparable to the virgin polymer.

The goal of C2CA project is to recycle end-of-life concrete into high-value applications such as clean aggregates and new concrete, which is one of the most interesting options for reducing worldwide natural resources use and emissions associated with the building materials sector. The production of the cement used in concrete, for example, is responsible for at least 5% of worldwide CO2 emissions.

BIO-BOARD project is working on the development of sustainable protein-based paper and paperboard coating systems to increase the recyclability of food and beverage packaging materials.

The aim of the RecycAl project is to develop an innovative processing technology that enables low-grade aluminium scrap with high levels of impurities to be transformed into a new raw material, with low levels of impurities and suitable for use in making advanced aluminium alloys.

The Waste2Go project aims to develop a process in which the biogenic fraction of municipal solid waste is converted from a waste stream into a source of various sustainable valuable chemicals.

The INNOBITE project aims to transform urban and agricultural residues into high performing, resource efficient products for the emerging Green Construction sector.

The purpose of the WPF project is to introduce storage furniture made of waste paper to the European market in collaboration with IKEA. Using waste paper as raw material for furniture is both innovative and environmentally friendly in comparison with existing furniture, which is usually made of particle boards.

Treatment and Recovery of Complex Waste

CoLaBATS will develop new battery recycling processes for the recovery of cobalt, lanthanum, cerium, copper, nickel and other materials from waste batteries, significantly improving recycling efficiencies and recovered metal purity, compared to existing recycling routes. The project will focus on rechargeable Li-ion and NiMH batteries.  These batteries are found in everyday consumer products, such as mobile phones and lap-tops, industrial equipment, and are important for the developing electric vehicle market.

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment is considered to increase drastically in the coming decades. WEEE contains considerable quantities of valuable components used in high-tech applications that currently are not recycled. In this context, RECYVAL-NANO project will develop an innovative recycling process for recovery and reuse of indium, yttrium and neodymium metals from flat panels’ displays, one of the most growing waste sources.

Over one billion tyres are discarded each year all over the world. At the moment nearly 50% of all recycled tyres/components still end up as fuel, in low grade applications or in landfill. In this context, the aim of the Anagennisi project is to develop innovative solutions to reuse all tyre components in high value innovative concrete applications with reduced environmental impact. Another project SULFREE is also developing a process for end of life tyre recycling that converts waste rubber crumb into valuable products and platform chemicals.

AiMeRe CleanSky project aims to define an advanced methodology for optimized metals and materials recycling of ageing aircraft at the end of their life cycle.

W2Plastics aims to develop two emerging concepts, Magnetic Density Separation and Ultrasound process control, to a cost-effective technology for sorting complex wastes into secondary polyolefin products. The European consumption of plastic materials has increased from 24,6Mt in 1993 to 39,7Mt in 2004 and it increases faster than the economy as a whole. Over a third of this plastic is polyolefin.

Projects PV Morede and RECLAIM are developing recycling technologies for discarded PV modules. The PV industry is growing exponentially, raising the urgent need for a recycling industry to handle both end-of-manufacturing waste (panels that are damaged or do not pass quality control), as well as end-of-lifecycle waste management.

Organic Waste Recycling

NEWAPP is a research project focusing on the application of the HTC process with which wet biomass waste can be transformed into coal-like products. EU generates yearly 80.000.000 tons of wet biowaste that can be effectively recycled to carbon materials by means of HTC.

The main focus of NOSHAN is to investigate the process and technologies needed to use food waste for feed production at low cost, low energy consumption and with maximal valorization of starting wastes materials.

The key objectives of the REFERTIL project is to improve the currently used compost and biochar treatment systems, towards advanced, efficient and comprehensive bio-waste treatment and nutrient recovery process with zero emission performance.

The objective of the SYNPOL project is the establishment of an integrated processing technology for the efficient synthesis of cost-effective commercial new biopolymers using the products derived from fermentation of syngas generated from very complex waste feedstock.

Material Recovery

The objective of REE-CYCLE project is to develop a cost effective and environmentally friendly rare earth elements recycling process. Today there is no industrial process available for rare earth elements recycling. Currently, 97% of the mining operations of rare earth elements are performed in China, hence representing a major Damocles’ Sword for the rest of the world’s economy.

The main goal of the IRCOW project is to develop and validate upgraded technological solutions to achieve an efficient material recovery from construction and demolition waste.

The ShredderSort project aims to develop a new dry sorting technology for non-ferrous automotive shredder. The amount of waste generated by the automotive industry in the EU raised up to 10 million tonnes in 2010, and it is foreseen that it will increase by 40% until 2015.

Water Recycling

The main objective of the R3Water project is to demonstrate solutions that support the transition from a treatment plant for urban wastewater to a production unit of different valuables. So far waste water treatment plants are usually regarded as facilities to avoid emissions from wastewater. Current research and development shows that these plants can be converted and upgraded into production units to provide energy, nutrients, water for re-use and possibly other valuables.

The P-REX project is working on the technology of phosphorus recovery from municipal wastewater. Phosphorus is one essential element of life, which can neither be produced synthetically nor substituted by any other substance. Its importance as plant nutrient is emphasized by the huge amount of mineral phosphorus annually imported into Europe to sustain good harvests. Municipal wastewater represents a relevant phosphorus reserve and has the potential to cover about 20% of the demand.

Waste to Energy

The objective of the FFW project is to use agricultural waste, mainly residues from olive farming and olive oil production, for the generation of ready-to-use fuels, namely synthetic natural gas (SNG) and diesel, which would be primarily used for energy production and as transportation fuel for olive farming.

The BioWET project is working on a number of advanced biotechnologies for waste-to-energy conversion. It will include anaerobic digestion of wastewater and solid waste, bio-hydrogen production from industrial wastewater and direct electricity production using sediment fuel cells.

The purpose of the BioWALK4Biofuels project is to develop and demonstrate an integrated plant for utilization of organic waste and CO2 from energy generation (e.g. power plants) for the production of second-generation biofuel in the shape of biogas – through cultivation of algae.

Transforming waste into valuable resources is a high priority in today’s global economy. New innovative technologies in resource recovery and recycling will be playing a key role in the transition towards circular economy. At the same time, technologies are only one pillar of this transition. To accelerate circular economy a joint collaboration will need to be established between stakeholders who haven’t traditionally interacted with one another. To close the loop on the old linear approach we will need the waste and resource operators, who work at products’ end of life, to talk to the designers who work at products’ start of life. Eco-design will be critical in the circular economy as well as recycling and recovery technologies. To maximize the benefits and use of our resources, products will need to be designed both to be more easily disassembled for material recovery, and also to incorporate more recycled content. So, providing expertise and early input at the design phase, the waste and resources industry could help to maximize the recovery potential of products and realize the benefits of a circular approach. We also need new innovative business models that will unlock added value through the application of closed-loop principles. We need to educate and engage the entire supply chains and those who influence them – including politicians, manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Only with this mutual and systemic collaboration we can achieve a real transition to a resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular economy.

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