EVENT FOLLOW-UP – ECRN Conference: Waste as a feedstock for the Circular Economy, challenges and opportunities for the chemical industry

EVENT FOLLOW-UP – ECRN Conference: Waste as a feedstock for the Circular Economy, challenges and opportunities for the chemical industry

On 20th April 2022, ECRN organised an online conference to discuss the use of waste as feedstock for the circular economy, particularly within the chemical sector.

Folco Ciulli, ECRN Executive Director and moderator, opened the conference with and overview of the agenda and speakers.

Monika Banka, ECRN Network and Policy Coordinator, presented the Network and its activities. In particular, she summarised the key points of ECRN position paper on waste management and shipment, which outlines our vision on waste as feedstock for the circular economy:

  • Speed up the adoption of harmonised definition and indicators on waste as feedstock in the circular economy.
  • Provide citizens with clear and easy-to-navigate product labelling to dispose of waste.
  • Harmonise and simplify administrative procedures, making use of digital solutions.
  • Ensure that circular business models are incentivised, supporting in particular SMEs.
  • Support regions in the transition to circularity, especially frontrunners that invest time and financial resources and take the risk to develop innovative solutions that can be then easily replicated by others.

PANEL 1: The role of regions in supporting the circular economy and the chemical industry, identified challenges and expected legislative changes.

Stefano Panozzo (Secretariat-General of the European Committee of the Regions) opened the first panel by presenting the Committee of the Regions and its role as advisory body on EU legislation. In particular, he identified three recent opinions of the Committee on crucial EU initiatives:

Importantly, Mr. Panozzo also highlighted the crucial role of upskilling and reskilling in the transition to a circular and sustainable chemical sector. The green and digital transformation of the economy requires intensive investment into education and training, which will be the topic of the next ECRN hybrid event taking place on 17 May 2022.

Yolanda Schmaal (policy officer, Province of North Holland, the Netherlands) presented the Ex’tax project, which advocates for a systemic change of the tax system to create a level playing field for circular products and solutions. The current tax system enables and promotes a linear economy, as fiscal pressure targets labour rather than the use of resources and pollution. This makes producing new products relatively cheaper than labour-intensive activities, such as repair and refurbishment.

Dutch Provinces support the fiscal shift advocated by the Ex’Tax project and work together to build political and social support at the national and European level. For example, they included the Ex-tax approach in their recent position paper on the Circular Economy.

Importantly, a growing number of businesses also advocate for a radical change of the current tax system, which originates from a time when the job market was less globalized and therefore labour provided a very reliable source of income for governments, while natural resources seemed unlimited.

Lieven Top (policy officer, Flanders region, Belgium) brought the point of view and experience of Flanders, which is one of the most advanced chemical regions in Europe. After providing a brief overview of the several EU policy and legislative initiatives affecting the chemical sector, he stressed the importance of ensuring a clear, stable, and coherent framework. The number and complexity of regulatory obligations must be constantly adapted and improved to avoid undermining the competitiveness of European companies.

Luisa Mascia (project officer, CBE JU) presented the Circular Bio-based Europe Joint Undertaking (CBE JU). This public-private partnership between the European Commission and a consortium representing the bio-based industries will mobilise €2 billion in the period 2021-2027. Its objectives are to:

  • Accelerate the development of bio-based innovative solutions.
  • Accelerate market deployment of the existing mature bio-based solutions.
  • Ensure a high level of environmental performance of bio-based industrial systems.

CBE JU builds on the successes of its predecessor BBI JU. From 2014 to 2021, BBI JU mobilised more than 800 million and funded 142 projects with more than 1000 beneficiaries from 39 countries. A number of these projects use waste as feedstock to produce added value and sustainable market applications, two significant examples being the Circular Biocarbon project and the Embraced project.

PANEL 2: Best practices to manage waste and tackle bottlenecks.

Maria Dolores Nuñez Sanchez (project officer ACCIÓ, Agency for Business Competitiveness of Catalonia Spain) presented some of the key actions and policies of Catalonia to promote the circular economy:

  • The Waste Cluster is a joint initiative of the Catalan Waste Agency and ACCIÓ to bring together companies and environmental agents from the entire value chain of the sector, from the source of the waste, through its management (collection, classification, treatment, and recovery), and to the end-of-life stage.
  • Collaborative R&D projects provide non-refundable grants (between 25% and 75% of eligible costs) to projects with TRL 3 – 7. Topics include, for example, limiting waste generation, achieving the maximum efficient use of resources, improving waste treatment processes.
  • The ProACCIÓ Green program includes ACCIÓ’s services, assessment, grants and activities to position sustainability as one of the company’s strategic axes through responsible innovation and using technology as a lever for green transformation.
  • Leading Circular Economy Solution in Catalonia is an interactive catalogue with the 100 most innovative circular practices in Catalonia.

Importantly, Ms. Nuñez highlighted how the chemical sector faces a double challenge: enabling the circular transition of several sectors, while becoming more circular itself.

Mattia Adani (CEO NowalChimica and Member of the General Council of Chemical Industry Assolombarda, Italy) presented the Bi-rex project, which focuses on new sustainable and circular processes to produce natural polymers, in particular cellulose and chitin, and achieve a “world where paper is not made out of tree and plastic is fully biodegradable”. Bi-rex works to extract cellulose from sources other than trees such as agri-food biomasses and waste, and to develop less polluting European value chains for chitin to make Europe less dependent on Asian imports.

The Bi-rex consortium brings together several different entities: innovative SMEs like NowalChimica, the Politecnico di Milano (university), Assolombarda (business association), the Lombardy Region. Moreover, it also entails a strong European dimension, working closely with ECRN to establish fruitful partnerships with industrial entities from other European regions, such as the Province of Limburg.

Once again, also Mattia Adani stressed the importance of ensuring that regulatory burdens do not slow down or prevent innovation in Europe, thus undermining the competitiveness of the European industry.

Frank Schaap (Director Business Development and Marketing Chemelot, the Netherlands) brought the success story of Chemelot, the 2nd largest integrated chemical site in Europe, with 200 companies, 3000 workers, and an aggregated turnover of €10 billion. Chemelot is located at the centre of the so-called ARRRA cluster (Antwerp-Rotterdam-Rhine-Ruhr-Area), which is the largest chemical cluster in the world and accounts for 40% of the EU chemical production.

In order to become the most safe, sustainable and competitive chemical site in Europe, Chemelot has developed a strategy to 2050 and is working on several projects to make its processes circular and sustainable. Examples of projects using waste as circular feedstock include:

  • Quality circular polymers (QCP), which uses mechanical recyling to produce near virgin-quality recycled polymers.
  • Sabic and plastic energy focuses instead on chemical recycling to turn plastic waste into oil that replaces nafta as feedstock.
  • The startup Black Bear Carbon is also applying chemical recycling to turn used tyres into oil, gas, and carbon black, which then serve as feedstock for other industrial processes.
  • Lastly, the Furec project has developed an innovative process that uses municipal waste to produce circular and biogenic hydrogen at very large scale.

Mr. Schaap also pointed out some of the challenges encountered:

  1. The lack of a uniform European landscape on waste.
  2. The growing difficulties in shipping plastic waste across EU borders.
  3. The need to concile recycling policies with other objectives, such as reducing CO2 emissions and make efficient use of fossil raw materials and energy.
  4. The knowledge gap among goverment officials and citizens.
  5. The need to evaluate and rank waste processes based on efficiency and cost effectiveness.