The technologies for the circular economy need a clear regulatory framework

15.10.2021
Among the Open Room activities, the third session of the Circular Economy Cycle, organized by the Repsol Foundation and Funseam, focused on analyzing innovative technological solutions for improving the efficiency and productivity of recycling. New technologies offer many opportunities for improving the product life cycle by promoting greater efficiency and more responsible consumption.

If the Circular Economy is a solution for the future, technology and innovation play a key role in its development. Corporations and research centers are working on a variety of projects that are contributing to improving product life cycles, and bringing greater efficiency and more responsible consumption. We got to know about some of them at the third session of the Circular Economy Cycle, organized by Funseam and the Repsol Foundation.

Corporations and research centers have been working for years on applying technology and innovation to waste management. At the third session of the Circular Economy Cycle, we learned about some of these projects, which are ultimately streamlining all aspects of sustainability. In his opening speech, the Chairman of Funseam, Joan Batalla, emphasized that “adopting innovative, smart technologies contributes to increasing the efficiency and productivity of the waste management and recycling industry”.

Raquel Iglesias is the manager of the advanced biocarbons and bioproducts unit of the Center for Energy, Environmental, and Technological Research, which researches products made from industrial and urban waste, and lignocellulosic crops. In her presentation, Iglesias explained some of the projects on which they are working, especially in the area of biorefineries, which use biomass as a renewable energy to replace fossil fuels and obtain bioproducts that close the loop and lower production costs. She considers that there is still much to be done in the biogas sector and mentioned challenges such as “the biological upgrading of biogas from agroindustry, the transformation of the organic fraction of urban solid waste and biocarbons or bioplastics, and the biorefining of olive and grape waste, among others.” In her presentation, she emphasized that “biorefineries are an opportunity for the agri-food industry. What is lacking are demonstration projects that allow upscaling to an industrial level”.

Carlos Díaz, head of Repsol Low Emissions Fuels, spoke of the transformation of the traditional refining industry into the decarbonized refineries of the future, and focused on the challenges posed by this transformation in four major areas: “Energy efficiency, renewable gases, low-carbon liquid fuels, and CO2 capture and utilization or CCU technology”. Repsol has been working on biofuels for 20 years and its aim is to offer fuels made from raw materials for all types of transport. Diaz noted some of the projects on which the company is working: low-carbon biofuels, synthetic fuels made from renewable hydrogen and captured CO2, and biogas. All of these involve “an inclusive transformation of the refining industry that will lead to industrial development, land development, and quality jobs.”

Silvia Greses is a researcher in the Biotechnological Processes Unit of IMDEA Energía, an institute under the Regional Government of the Community of Madrid that sponsors and carries out energy-related R&D activities, with a special emphasis on issues related to renewable energies and clean energy technologies. Greses took part in this third session to talk about the technologies on which they are working to recover waste, such as the use of lactic acid to product bioplastics. According to this researcher: “From one single type of waste, we can create five different products. It is not enough to have just one product but to maximizer the recovery of waste to obtain more products, thanks to new technologies that allow us to do so on an industrial scale.”

Also speaking at the session was Andrés Pascual, director of innovation at Ainia, which develops applied technologies to improve the productivity of industrial processes. More than 700 companies are associated with Ainia, most of them in the agri-food industry, and they have been working for over 15 years on projects related with anaerobic digestion, biogas, and biomethane. Their goal is to create new models for agri-food biorefineries. “We started by researching how to diversify the end products produced from one single biomass because it seemed to us the path to follow when talking of revaluing organic subproducts.

Barriers to the development of circular economy models

During the debate that followed, which was moderated by the director of the Revista Técnica de Medio Ambiente (Technical Environmental Journal), Alberto Casillas, the speakers emphasized the importance of the regulatory framework for the development of new circular economy models. Very often, this is a factor limiting the development of subproducts that respond to the challenges of the production industries and waste managers.

Raquel Iglesias explained it this way: “At times, the laws do not allow us to develop the technologies that we have created and, there is also reticence regarding where it comes from, because we are using waste. It requires a cultural change”.

According to Silvia Greses “the legal framework is very important and it needs to stop being a limiting factor. But it is also necessary to increase public funding and the number of companies that want to invest in these technologies.”

Carlos Díaz, from Repsol, noted that “we have to be able to coordinate the speed demanded by society with the lack of agility that government departments apply to regulatory changes. Clear regulations are essential for making investments secure”.

Andrés Pascual also considers that: “Biogas plants are the circular economy in its purest form.  They offer advantages in the areas of emissions, clean energy, and even rural development. That affects the different areas of the administration and often they lack a comprehensive overview of these advantages. We should not talk only of megawatts, but of waste management and environmental impact.”

Upcoming session

International experiences in waste management”, Thursday, October 28, 12:00-1:30 p.m.