News | October 9, 2019

Towards a circular economy: the challenge of connecting technology and logistics

The re-use of our materials is essential for a sustainable future. To achieve circularity we need to integrate the whole value chain of waste collection, sorting, recycling and re-use. A huge challenge, not only organizational and logistical, but also technological, which is why chemical recycling can and needs to be included in the process. However, facing this challenge also creates opportunities, both within and beyond the plastic industry.  

Several circles of re-use

‘Circularity is everywhere,’ says ISPT-director Tjeerd Jongsma, ‘It’s not just about household garbage and other waste, it’s also about re-using heat and energy – about making circular energy. It’s about circular nitrogen and circular phosphate, and about making carbon circular for the steel industry. How can we achieve circularity in all resources we use? It doesn’t even have to be one full circle, we can re-use our resources in several circles, as long as the materials remain contained in our production processes, whether they rotate further in the same circle or in other circles. And a little bit always gets lost in the process,’ Jongsma adds after a brief pause, ‘a little carbon dioxide or a little nitrogen. So eventually we will have to look at biomass as well. To regain the lost molecules we need to bring in biomass. My guess is that the solution will be a combination of circular resources and a little bit of bio-based recycling.’

Circular wind turbines

Harbors are key in connecting innovative technologies with logistics. We talked about this with Natalya Rijk, project manager at SmartPort, the knowledge platform for the Rotterdam harbor industry. She gives an appealing example: ‘The port of Rotterdam can play an important role when it comes to the decommissioning of offshore wind parks,’ she says. ‘We need circularity for the rotor blades of the wind turbines when they reach their End of Life and are returned from the sea. Those rotor blades are made of composite, and we have no way to recycle composite yet. I think the development of a technology to recycle those rotor blades represents a big opportunity for the port of Rotterdam. The wind turbines are within range, and we have the required space to store the blades and to process them further.’

Rijk is passionate about the prospects for circular wind turbines. ‘I think this can be a really great opportunity. That is why SmartPort is working on a consortium to stimulate the development of such a technology. There is one being developed at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, but right now it is only in the initial state. There are also other parties working on their own ideas, but none have found a solution yet that can be broadly implemented. At SmartPort we work with several companies and authorities to create a menu of what we can do with wind turbines. Of course we can make slides for children’s playgrounds out of the rotor blades, but there are so many of those rotor blades and we have only so much room for playgrounds in our country. A menu helps with that: this option won’t work, but that one will.’

Waste-to-chemicals

Circular wind turbines are not the only recycling opportunity that is being researched in the Rotterdam harbor industry. Rijk: ‘Many feedstocks for the plastic industry are made in the Rotterdam harbor. According to the circularity principle those plastics should be recycled here again. The port lies next to Rotterdam, one of the largest cities in the Netherlands, which means that there is an immense amount of waste in this region. The harbor offers great opportunities for waste recycling. We have the large waste incinerator plant owned by AVR, which could provide circularity components. There is also another project for the production of new resources from waste flows by chemical recycling; an advanced waste-to-chemicals factory in the port of Rotterdam.’

Technologies for circularity

Rijk mentions several other technologies she considers relevant for the harbor industry. ‘Electrification is very important for us, for instance –  and I mean electrification in the broader sense, so not only as a sustainable energy source, but also electrification processes that allow us to make base chemicals by re-using of carbon and carbon dioxide. The production of chemicals by means of green hydrogen and carbon dioxide is a technology that really needs to be scaled up. The technology for a better separation of waste flows is also of great importance. And last but not least: the technology to make new plastics out of old plastics – indeed, circular plastics. Those are technologies we really need in the harbor industry.’

Circular Plastics Initiative

In the effort to realize circular plastics, SmartPort joins forces with the Circular Plastics Initiative initiated by the ISPT and DPI. ISPT-director Jongsma emphasizes the importance of plastics for a sustainable future. ‘At the moment about 50 to 70 percent of the supplies in the fresh food industry doesn’t even make it to the consumer. That is a lot of waste. Plastic is instrumental for the prolongation of shelf life of food products, and for the sustainability of the food industry. Plastic is a resource for circularity, but circular plastics require the integration of the whole value chain of waste collection, sorting, recycling, re-use and end-use. That represents a challenge, both technologically and logistically. But ports are logistical hubs, they will always play an important part in any circularity issue. They distribute resources, and now there is also a flow backwards.’

Successful system

The harbor industry is a key partner for solving the logistical issue – and possibly other issues as well, as illustrated by Rijk. But the transition to a circular economy can only succeed by creating an integrated system wherein all stakeholders are able to share their expertise and experiences with new sustainable technologies. A wide range of international partners in the industrial, administrative and scientific field will also help to broadly implement these technologies in the whole chain, and maybe even create opportunities we haven’t imagined yet.

Want to learn more about industry’s efforts to establish a sustainable future? Read the first blog on the role of industry in the debate around sustainability here, and the second blog about the transition to a green industry here.

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