The Dutch industry has a major ambition: to be fully sustainable by 2050. To do this, the process industry has dedicated itself to implementing sustainable innovations: a crucial role that is often overlooked in the public debate on sustainability. So, what if we don’t see the industry as a big bad polluter, but as an indispensable partner in building a green future?
Because let’s face it: society has some qualms about industry having such a key role. The industry needs to show that it recognizes what’s at stake, and that it’s ready to make the investments and work with stakeholders to make the transition happen.
At the Institute of Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT), we assist industry and society in achieving circularity at multiple levels. And we think the Dutch process industry plays a crucial role in realising a green future.
1. The industry can make plastics circular
For instance in 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.”
Only the industry can make food packaging biodegradable
“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 3 or 4 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.”
The industry is definitely doing its fair shareTjeerd Jongsma – Director ISPT
2. Electrification can be a major export product for the Netherlands
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.”
The Netherlands can become the future energy hub of Europe
Especially hydrogen is important, according to Tjeerd 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.”
3. The future of sustainable food lies with the industry
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 is a challenge
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.”
Better cooperation between the industry would be a fast and effective way for implementing new technologies
4. Digitization can reduce our energy use by 20%-30%
The ultimate goal is, of course, a fully green industry. And 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%. 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.
Nevertheless digitization also has its particular challenge, mainly in the educational area. Jongsma: “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 works on closing the chain
At ISPT we envision a waste-free economy in which products and raw materials are either recycled or reused. In this new economy we have to transform our value chains. What is waste for your neighbour, might be a highly valuable resource for you. To achieve this we need everyone. And that is a fundamentally different approach. Because it is no longer about separate process innovations, but about a system innovation in which we close the chain together.
The greatest barrier appears to be the practical translation: terminology, knowledge and know-how about chemistry are not the same as those about water. This is where ISPT can play a major role: we feel at home in complex projects involving multiple actors and stakeholders. Within our network and programs we work on new, feasible and innovative solutions that will lead to full circularity by 2050.
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