What is the circular economy?
The circular economy aims to move towards a new model of development and growth in which the use of resources, materials and products is optimized, maintaining their value in the entire economy for as long as possible, and in which resources are returned to the production process, minimizing waste production. Society is evolving from the classic “produce, use and dispose” model towards a new paradigm of “reduce, reuse and recycle”.
The circular economy seeks to mimic nature and create local ecosystems, whether natural or anthropic, by converting waste into secondary raw materials, efficiently managing energy, and generating a paradigm shift. The circular economy can be viewed as a resource utilization system, contributing to rationalizing the use of natural resources without compromising future generations. In Europe, the percentage of municipal waste that is recycled and recovered must reach 50% this year, 2020, and increase by 5 percentage points every 5 years to reach 65% in 2035.
Principles of the circular economy. How does it work?
The circular economy is a different way of finding solutions to the problems we face in terms of resource depletion, waste generation and environmental degradation. At the same time, it provides ways to implement these solutions in our activities. It should have the broadest possible scope, from the conception and design of products and services up to the end of their useful lives. The circular economy is based on the following principles:
- Waste is feedstock: it should be possible for all products to be disassembled and degraded and for their components and materials to be reincorporated into natural or industrial cycles with minimum energy consumption.
- Diversity is strength: the greater the diversity of components and of the interactions between them, the stronger and more resilient are natural and human-made systems.
- Energy from renewable sources: all energy used in natural and industrial processes must come from renewable sources.
- Systemic thinking: the design of any system must identify and assess all linear and nonlinear relationships between internal components and external elements.
- Ownership model: it is not necessary to acquire ownership of products and services in order to use them. Sharing is the driver of the future development of all goods and services.
- Services rather than products: the service that an object provides must take precedence over its ownership. Converting manufacturers from sellers to service providers.
- Recycling is great, but it’s not enough: recycling does not avoid consumerism, or the associated impacts. Prevention is obligatory.
- Prices must reflect real costs: real prices should drive the consumption of goods and services to those that can be integrated into a circular economy. Systems must be economically viable in order to be sustainable over time.
Circular Economy model:
How do we apply the circular economy?
Ferrovial Services understands the circular economy as a source of value creation, both to transform our waste treatment plants into centers for the recovery of resources and secondary raw materials, and to create new business models supported by the circular economy principles.
The company’s experience covers the entire life cycle of waste, from collection to recycling, and the final transformation of waste into materials or energy. Ferrovial Services has implemented a number of solutions that close the loop for some materials that were previously considered to be waste: by converting this waste into resources or producing secondary raw materials, giving waste a new lease of life.
Circular Economy: distinctive solutions
In order to make maximum use of waste, we work along two lines: materials and energy. We focus on the production of new materials or energy from waste.
The circular economy for materials recovery
- Solutions for recovering plastic: Ferrovial Services has undertaken a circular economy project in which plastic that was formerly disposed of in landfills is used to build 100% recycled and 100% recyclable urban furniture for use by Fundación para la Investigación en Etología y Biodiversidad. This project produced a total of 300 meters of fencing and 400 meters of plastic profiles, avoiding the disposal of over 15 tons of plastic waste in landfills. Using a new treatment process, the company can now recycle worthless plastic waste to produce strong, solid materials.
- Recovery of textiles from household waste: 80% of textile waste ends up in the residual fraction, whereas only 20% is source-sorted. 90% of this type of waste can be recycled. For this reason, Ferrovial Services developed a technological solution aimed at recovering textiles found in residual municipal waste. Through the RECITEX project, the company developed an industrial solution to obtain a mixed material for use in manufacturing new fibers and nonwoven fabrics. This recycled material can be applied in the automobile, construction, mattress and other industries.
- Transformation of organic greenhouse waste into activated carbon and charcoal: the harvest of greenhouse-grown fruit and vegetables produces a large volume of waste plant material, which creates significant handling, environmental, health and image problems in areas where there is a high concentration of greenhouses. To address this problem, Ferrovial Services developed a completely circular solution to transform greenhouse waste into CO2-neutral renewable carbon through an industrial charring process. This contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the carbon footprint.
- Industrial production of insects for treating organic waste: a project undertaken in collaboration with startup Entomo Agroindustrial to analyze opportunities for promotion, development and exploitation of the industrial production of insects for the treatment of organic waste and by-products, using them as food for black soldier fly larvae, from which value-added raw materials, such as protein, fat and chitosan, can be obtained for the pharmaceutical industry, agriculture and livestock breeding.
- Recycling PET plastic: Ferrovial Services manages, operates and maintains one of Europe’s largest PET flake recycling plants. The plant processes about 50,000 tons of recovered PET per year. It can handle the waste produced each year by 5 million people, triple the population of Barcelona. The plant mainly recycles bottles in order to close the plastic lifecycle and give a new life to packaging.
- Pharmaceutical waste treatment plant: Through Biotrán, Ferrovial Services manages Spain’s only plant for the recovery (materials and energy) of pharmaceutical waste. The facility provides a zero-waste guarantee to manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The plant separates, sorts and treats medicines and packaging that citizens dispose of in more than 21,000 SIGRE points located in pharmacies all over Spain.
The circular economy to produce energy from waste
- Production of renewable gas from organic waste: in order to close the waste and energy cycle, Ferrovial Services operates Spain’s only plant for upgrading biogas made from organic waste. The plant enriches biogas generated at the Valdemingómez (Madrid) biomethanization plants, transforming it into renewable natural gas, similar to natural gas (biomethane), which is injected into the gas grid: it produces about 100,000 MWh per year, enough to power 20,000 homes, or 500 buses in Madrid’s mass transit system.
- Treatment plant in North Yorkshire (United Kingdom): through Amey, Ferrovial Services operates the Allerton large-scale energy-from-waste plant in cooperation with North Yorkshire County Council. The facility can treat 320,000 tons of waste produced in North Yorkshire and the city of York and produce 200,000 MWh of electricity per year, enough to meet the needs of 40,000 households.
- Energy services with waste: a distinctive solution for industry that integrates energy generation, distribution and consumption based on harnessing the energy value of waste with a focus on cost optimization, energy stability and independence, and environmental responsibility.
Circular economy and energy efficiency
- Energy Control Center: The Ferrovial Services Energy Control Center is a collaborative workspace centralizing energy management and know-how in relation to energy efficiency services. The Center manages many types of contracts: from hospitals, schools, sports centers, offices and processing plants, to district heating and production plants.
- Geothermal energy at landfills: the Geotermabok project is a proof-of-concept for the use of geothermal energy systems, normally applied to the ground, in order to extract the heat generated in a landfill. The project also analyses potential uses of the heat, such as powering processes in the landfill itself (e.g. leachate processing) and other applications such as heating.
- District Heating: the district heating project in San Sebastián (Spain) is based on a heating network that uses centralized heat production from biomass to meet the demand for heating and air conditioning of around 1,500 homes in the city’s Txomin Enea district. By using biomass, this project cuts CO2 emissions by a total of 1,800 tons per year. This initiative also saves costs for operator and end user alike.
Circular Economy, Innovation and Technology
New technologies play a decisive role in facilitating the transformation towards a circular economy. In order for secondary raw materials to be able to compete with virgin materials, technologies are needed that can increase current material recovery rates and, in particular, material quality, so as to produce new materials from residual waste flows.
Waste management will evolve to become an industrial process, in line with Industry 4.0. Using big data and artificial intelligence, treatment plants will be operated as smart factories for the production of raw materials, providing improvements in recovery rates and in material quality.
Ferrovial Services has a comprehensive program of innovation projects using new technologies to increase the amount and quality of the materials that are recovered in our plants.
Robotics and artificial intelligence
This technology enables us to improve material recovery rates and quality while also enhancing process efficiency. Our waste treatment plants are increasingly looking like “smart factories”, where the waste is viewed as a raw material to be processed to obtain materials that can be reintroduced into the industrial cycle. One such example is the ‘ZRR for Municipal Waste’ project, which analyzes the implementation of robotics to sort and select municipal waste; the system is currently installed at the Ecoparc 4 plant in Hostalets de Pierola, Barcelona Another notable project being implemented in partnership with startup SADAKO consists of using cameras with artificial intelligence to improve waste sorting. This technology has been installed in plants in Portugal, the United Kingdom and Spain.
Drones and sensors
The use of drones equipped with sensors such as vision or thermal imaging systems, and incorporating artificial intelligence can improve asset inspection and maintenance, early detection of anomalies, and health and safety at facilities. More than 12 different use cases have already been tested successfully in our facilities. They have demonstrated drones’ versatility for monitoring difficult-to-access areas and can be helpful in spaces with complex atmospheres, such as compost halls, where human access is restricted.
The ability to reproduce real environments by integrating data processing, smart software and sensors to make predictions and control production in treatment plants based on this data. The process can reproduce the entire treatment life cycle, from design to operation. This technology supports decision-making and mitigates risks, and is an important tool for optimizing our assets.
Virtual and augmented reality
Virtual reality is an important training tool when applied to learning and the simulation of maintenance and repair activities and emergency situations. Additionally, augmented reality can be used as real-time support in machinery dispatching and as a maintenance management interface, enhancing workers’ hazard awareness and safety. Both tools can significantly improve workplace safety.
The circular economy: a horizontal dimension
As a key player in the transition towards a circular economy, Ferrovial Services works with many players in the cycle to ensure its projects’ success. The circular economy model must be based on public-private partnerships: government must invest to improve recovery rates; waste management companies and recyclers must provide know-how and management capabilities; and producers must use recovered materials in their products. Citizens must sort their waste at source, and also demand greener products and services.
Ferrovial Services seeks outside partners who can contribute the scientific and technical knowledge required to develop its projects. It also participates in forums and working groups in Spain and Europe, and in the context of the Spanish Confederation of Employers’ Organizations (CEOE), Business Europe and the Spanish Green Growth Group, to debate issues related to the Circular Economy: plastics strategy, new waste directives, and Spain’s circular economy strategy.
Circular Economy is a model that is being implemented little by little in numerous sectors and businesses. Innovation is a great ally to this new concept.
Beatriz Castillo, Head of Special Environmental Projects
Plastic has been one of our biggest allies in forming our standard of living. Hygienic containers have enabled a never-before-seen state of health, and polymers’ high durability have brought down prices for all sorts of processes and objects.
Joan Valls, project manager.
Circular Economy involves a natural, evolutionary change in the waste treatment sector. To this end, new technologies and innovation will play a fundamental role in transforming the industry and each and every one of its processes.
Jaume Cabré, Head of Innovation and Environment Development