EVENT FOLLOW-UP – ECRN Conference: EU regions as key players in the transition to the sustainable and circular chemical sector

EVENT FOLLOW-UP – ECRN Conference: EU regions as key players in the transition to the sustainable and circular chemical sector

10th November 2021 – In the framework of the First Global Sustainable Chemistry Week, on 10 November 2021, ECRN organised an online conference to discuss the role of regions as key players in the transition to a sustainable and circular chemical sector.

List of speakers:

  • Jeannette Baljeu – Regional Minister Zuid Holland Province, the Netherlands
  • Mattia Adani – CEO NowalChimica and Member of the General Council of Assolombarda
  • Maria Dolores Nuñez Sanchez – Coordinadora d’Anàlisi i Detecció d’Oportunitats Tecnològiques, Spain
  • Ulla Engelmann – Director, Networks & Governance, DG GROW, European Commission
  • Monika Zsigri – Deputy Head of Unit, Smart and Sustainable Growth, DG REGIO, European Commission
  • Heleen van Wijk – Groningen Seaports, Clean North Project on Circular Economy and Plastics, the Netherlands
  • Lia Voermans – Brightlands Chemelot Circular Hub and SYCHEMIQ (Horizon Europe project), the Netherlands
  • Fabrizio Sala – ECRN President, Minister for Education, Research, Innovation, University and Simplification, Lombardy Region, Italy

Minister Baljeu opened the conference remarking the strategic role of the chemical sector for the European economy. Today, the sector faces several challenges and opportunities, most of which related to the green transition. In this context, companies remain the main actors of these changes but regional authorities and clusters play a key role in facilitating the transition and supporting a competitive and sustainable chemical industry.

Mr. Mattia Adani and Ms. Maria Dolores Nuñez Sanchez introduced two projects developed under the Chemicals Partnership on the S3 Platform.

Mattia Adani presented the Bi-rex project, which focuses on natural polymers, such as cellulose and chitin, to achieve a “world where paper is not made out of tree and plastic is fully biodegradable”. The project addresses the many challenges and drawbacks associated with the production of these polymers, including deforestation caused by growing global demand, pollution, higher costs, and others. In particular, Bi-rex works to extract cellulose from sources other than trees such as agri-food biomasses and to develop less polluting European value chains for chitin to make Europe less dependent on Asian imports.

Maria Dolores Nuñez Sanchez presented the Flow Chemistry project, which aims to develop innovative chemical processes and contribute to the competitiveness of the European chemical sector. The final goal is to make chemical production safer, more efficient, flexible and adapt to emerging sectors such as nanomaterials, and, last but not least, more sustainable.

The project is now on hold because it encountered a few substantial bottlenecks, including:

  • Identification of the business model.
  • Financing problems, in particular the lack of pre-financing in the initial phases of the project.
  • Legal aspects and intellectual property.
  • Interregional dimension, namely how to engage various regional actors.
  • How to involve private companies.

Ms. Nuñez Sanchez noted that regional governments can act as facilitators, while the leading role should be taken by clusters, companies, and more business-oriented organisations. She also highlighted that small projects can build trust between the partners and create a cohesive community of stakeholders that know how to cooperate in a fruitful way.

Ms. Ulla Engelmann and Ms. Monika Zsigri brought valuable insights into the European Commission activities to achieve a more competitive and sustainable European chemical sector.

Director Ulla Engelmann (DG GROW) stressed the importance of engaging all actors for the success of the new EU Industrial Strategy. In this context, she highlighted the role of networks to better disseminate information and enable a bottom-up approach. Finally, she mentioned some of the main opportunities to contribute to the implementation of the EU industrial strategy:

Deputy Head of Unit Monika Zsigri (DG REGIO) recapped some of the main instruments the Commission is using to promote interregional cooperation and cohesion in Europe, namely:

  1. The S3 partnerships on the 3 Thematic Platform: industrial modernisation, agri-food, energy (ECRN coordinates the Partnership on Chemicals under the S3 Platform for industrial modernisation).
  2. The new Interregional Innovation Instrument (I3) programme, with the first calls for proposals expected to be launched in the following weeks (an infoday will take place in early December).

Lastly, Ms. Heleen van Wijk and Ms. Lia Voermans brought the experience of two success stories from the Netherlands.

Ms. Lia Voermans presented Brightlands Chemelot Campus, the first European Circular Hub and one of the largest research and industrial sites in Europe. Located in the Limburg Province, at the heart of a very industrialised area that is crucial for European chemistry, Brightlands Chemelot Campus is working on materials and processes to enhance the circularity and sustainability of the sector.

Ms. Heleen van Wijk (Groningen Seaports) presented the case of Chemport Europe, a chemical cluster bringing together the Provinces of Drenthe, Groningen, and Friesland from the Northern Netherlands. Circular economy is one of the key working areas, with a particular focus on plastics, textiles and clothing, and the building sector.

Working together, the three Provinces were able to build an ecosystem small enough to be extremely cohesive but big enough to make an impact. In particular, Chemport Europe supports the companies of the ecosystem on:

  • Access to funding, facilitating the match between financing institutions and companies.
  • Regulations.
  • The technical side, that is making utilities and infrastructure available to all the partners but also working on building a valuable network. For example, Chemport Europe is active in identifying and building supply streams to provide its partners with green feedstock.

Lastly, Ms. Valentina Colombo brought the closing remarks from ECRN President, Mr. Fabrizio Sala. Minister Sala stressed once again the role of interregional cooperation in advancing the chemical sector in Europe and the importance of stronger and secure supply chains on strategic raw materials like chemicals.

“The Covid-19 pandemic taught us that shortages in raw materials, in particular basic chemical components, can be and will be more and more a huge problem. If we want to mitigate such problem, we need to re-shore production and we need to do it by developing cooperation at research, industrial, and legislative levels” Minister Fabrizio Sala, ECRN President.