Thursday, June 8, 2023
Environmental awareness is growing in our country. As reflected in the European Investment Bank's 2020-2021 Climate Survey, 8 out of 10 Spaniards are aware that the climate crisis is the greatest challenge facing contemporary society and that its effects are not alien to ordinary citizens. Most of us are willing to make big changes in our consumption habits, and one of the most widespread is recycling. However, many people are unaware of what exactly happens to the garbage we throw in the dumpster, which materials are more easily recoverable and reusable, or how technology has advanced to gradually bring us closer to zero waste.
Transforming production and consumption patterns is not only a household goal, but an essential requirement to meet the Paris Agreement goals of reducing global temperature rise by two degrees Celsius by the end of the century, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is where the circular economy comes into play, a paradigm shift in the socioeconomic system that seeks to minimize the use of raw materials, water and energy when producing goods and services, in addition to minimizing waste generation, changing the traditional linear economy into a circular one.
The first step? Reduction: the circular economy encourages the adoption of measures that contribute to minimizing the amount of waste and its negative impact on human health and the environment. And based on the principle that the best waste is waste that is not produced, ecodesign emerges, which seeks to develop sustainable products and services, functionality, quality and subsequent reuse.
There are situations where reduction is not feasible and that is when the second piece of the machinery comes into play: reusing and repairing waste. Sometimes this task does not involve any processing—as is the case with the oil we reuse in our homes before recycling it—but on other occasions it requires a process of testing, cleaning and conditioning, as in the Rebattery initiative, a company from Guipuzcoa that has managed to extend the useful life of car batteries that begin to fail.
The third step in the circular economy hierarchy is recycling, which transforms waste into products with the same or a completely different purpose. This process begins when waste is produced and we, the citizens, are a key part. One piece of good news for the circular economy is that separating household waste by the material type has become an increasingly widespread habit. This is evidenced by data from Ecoembes in 2021, 1.6 million tons of household waste were delivered for recycling, mainly plastic containers, cans and briks, as well as paper and cardboard. This heightened environmental awareness has been coupled with an ever-increasing number of recycling garbage cans: in 2010, Spaniards had 333,780 yellow and 172,662 blue garbage cans, and today we can find 383,508 and 240,297 on our streets.
What about waste outside the home?
But recycling also affects all waste generated outside the home, where we find references such as Signus, a project aimed at giving a second life to end-of-life tires: flip-flop soles, artificial turf, safety pavements in playgrounds or gyms and bituminous mixtures to asphalt more than 1,600 kilometers of Spanish roads have been created from them.
However, when talking about recycling, the construction industry should be considered as it is responsible for 50% of the natural resources consumed, 40% of the energy used and 50% of the waste generated, according to the Handbook of Sustainable Building, a design and engineering manual. In this area, some of the easiest materials to recycle, which often have only one life, are steel, concrete, wood, gypsum, expanded polystyrene, and glass. Of particular note are initiatives such as the one recently announced by Cepsa and Saint-Gobain Weber, whereby they will recycle 1,000 tons of catalyst waste per year that Cepsa uses in its Energy Parks. After being expended for use, Saint-Gobain Weber uses this waste as a raw material in the construction sector to manufacture mortars used in various technical applications, such as ceramic tile installation and grouting, cladding and façade restoration.
Towards green mobility
Although perhaps one of the most unknown, this area of recycling has been and continues to be critical to reducing dependence on fossil fuels, especially in the field of mobility.
For electric vehicles, there are challenges and complications such as the electrification of long-distance trucks, ships, or airplanes. This is where sustainable fuels made from waste become an essential part of sustainable mobility and the circular economy.
We refer here both to those produced from agricultural waste, used oils, grease, and biomass and those manufactured from non-biological waste, such as municipal solid waste.
Apart from the transportation sector, recycling is opening up encouraging possibilities in the chemical, agricultural, and cosmetics industries. Ultimately, in Spain 473.3 kilos of urban waste were produced per inhabitant in 2020, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE). We are talking about food waste that does not compete with food, non-recyclable paper or vegetable waste from municipal pruning, all of which can be transformed into bioethanol, biogas, biopolymers or biofertilizers. When waste cannot be recycled, the fourth step in the circular economy hierarchy, rather than sending it to controlled landfills, the most sustainable alternative is energy recovery. Through this process, in industries such as the cement industry, some waste can be used as an energy source instead of fossil fuels. All of this, with the aim of continuing to advance on our path towards sustainability.
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