News | September 19, 2019

How industry plays a crucial role in establishing a sustainable future

Springtij Forum, taking place from 26 until 28 September on the Dutch isle of Terschelling, unites policy makers, financiers, designers, scientists, and others, to realize a sustainable future. This provides food for thought for society as a whole, including industry that has dedicated itself to implementing sustainable innovations: a crucial role that is often overlooked in the public debate on sustainability.

Cooperation and connection

The Institute of Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT) is involved in a wide range of projects concerning sustainability themes. One of those themes is circularity, which addresses the re-use of (plastic) materials. We have to integrate the whole chain of waste collection, sorting, recycling and re-use.

That is why ISPT’s director Tjeerd Jongsma advocates cooperation between all parties. ‘Currently those parties are separate. You have the packaging supply chain and its users, but also the plastic manufacturers, and the recycling businesses. We need to connect them. To that end we’ve created a consortium where they can exchange their own specific challenges, but also their opportunities and solutions. And it’s already yielding results.’

Jongsma explains that chemical recycling will be necessary for some plastics. ‘With PET bottles we fully support the deposit system. The second step is breaking down bottles when the plastic is too polluted. We reduce bottles to pellets and out of those pellets we melt new bottles. If that isn’t possible, we separate the base components, the polymers, that are made into chemicals that can be used to create new polymers, and thus new plastics.’

Food packaging

‘With soft plastics, like foil food packaging, the process is more complicated, because those are made from polyolefins, that absorb taste and scent. You can re-use them to make completely other products, like vacuum cleaners, but you’ll only need a new vacuum cleaner once every ten years, and we use a lot more foil than that.

‘No foil is not an option for some, like the fresh food industry. Without foil the food waste will be immense, because fresh food spoils within three or four days. But products packed in styrofoam can easily be packed in biodegradable foam. The industry is definitely doing its fair share. Unilever is extremely active in this, and so is Dow Chemicals, and the investments made by a relatively small company like Omrin are impressive. But connecting the chain is still the way to go forward.’

Shifting standards

ISPT is also involved in projects on renewable energy. Jongsma: ‘We already use demand side management: when there is ample wind energy available the industry purchases more, and when the supply is low it reduces its demand. We also aim to significantly reduce our overall energy use.’

‘Fossil-based used to be the standard, but now we look at electricity from sustainable sources. Electricity also makes the management of production processes more flexible, because you can use a filter instead of a evaporative system which causes enormous energy savings. There are some really inventive solutions in the industry, and those electrification processes are potentially a major international export product for the Netherlands.’

Sustainable industry-Wind turbine

Future energy hub of Europe

Especially hydrogen is important, according to Jongsma. ‘Hydrogen makes energy storable, and this is a domain wherein we can definitely be a frontrunner. Another consortium initiated by ISPT consists of parties that have enormous expertise in energy. This allows for real technological progress.’ Although there is some stiff competition on the hydrogen market, Jongsma sees opportunities for the Netherlands: ‘After the Fukushima nuclear disaster a hydrogen-based economy was fully embraced in Japan. But as an innovative country I think we stand a good chance to extend our role.’

‘Sustainable energy is a must, and will become cheaper than fossil-based energy. Take Saudi-Arabia for instance, where sustainable energy is already cheaper. All tenders for new power plants are won by solar parks, because they can supply energy at a significantly lower rate. Of course our country can never compete with the equatorial regions on solar energy, but we do have wind energy. The equatorial regions will build large electrolysers to produce hydrogen and we will import that hydrogen through our ports, that are already committed to becoming hydrogen entrance ports. So we are certainly positioning ourselves as the future energy hub of Europe.’

The future of sustainable food

Peter de Jong, ISPT’s specialist on food and agriculture, also observes a strong movement towards more sustainability. ‘The food industry re-evaluates and optimizes its current production processes, but also increasingly looks at new production processes and methods. That is why we research the possibilities of adjacent ingredients. Like potato starch – to thicken a product – or sugar. It isn’t always necessary to use those ingredients in their purest form.’

‘White sugar used to make cola undergoes a browning process anyway, so why not use a sugar that is already brownish? This will create more sustainability because you need less energy to purify the sugar. You will however need to implement new technologies, that require enormous investments without any guarantee that they will pay themselves back. So at ISPT we aim to connect parties with a common interest, like in the technology to separate proteins from waste flows. Proteins are a part of all food, so there are many parties with an interest in them. The remarkable thing is that by using ingredients that are less pure or originate from secondary food flows, the food actually becomes healthier, because it requires less processing.’

Reaching the whole food chain

But the production chain is complicated, De Jong warns, ‘and if one of the partners in it goes bankrupt the chain is broken. And then there is the consumer, the final stage in the food chain, who has to believe in the new products. That is why the industry is increasingly interested in involving consumers in the development of new food products. And what would really be beneficial is the involvement of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The food giants can provide raw materials, and the SMEs can experiment with new technologies. That would be a fast and effective way to broadly implement new technologies in the whole food chain.’

Digitization

The ultimate goal is, of course, a fully green industry. And one of the means to realize that is digitization, on which Frans van den Akker is ISPT’s expert. He explains how digitization is key in several areas: ‘In research, operations, maintenance, logistics, it has so many applications.’ It is a fast way to achieve results. ‘With digitization we can quickly reduce our energy use by at least 20 to 30 percent. By applying artificial intelligence in the maintenance of engines we can predict when they will start to fail. But digitization is also present in new analytical equipment, and digital ways to process data that allow us to research patents and new technologies. Advanced process control is especially successful, because you don’t have to build new factories for it, the implementation of new software will be sufficient.’

Challenges

Nevertheless digitization also has its particular challenge, mainly in the educational area. Van den Akker: ‘You need two kinds of people. The digital minded within the factory itself, and the people who have the capacity to make those applications. Digitization is always in the top of priorities in the boardrooms, but many SMEs lack the resources for it, which is why we are creating learning communities for them: meetings by and teams of different companies that exchange how they benefit from digitization. In other words: industry educates industry, and accelerates its own learning process this way.’

ISPT is also present as a partner at Springtij Forum where we organize a session on the future of plastic packaging. In the meantime, keep an eye on our website and LinkedIn page to learn more about the industry’s efforts in establishing a sustainable future.

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