One month ago, on 22 August, we finished the Earth natural resources available for 2020. 

This event occurs earlier every year due to the fact that we are consuming resources 1.6 times faster than the planet can produce and recover. They are all gone and there are still 131 days to go.

Is this situation actually sustainable? No. Can we make it sustainable? Yes. So, why don’t we transform our residues into new resources to relax the pressure on Earth?

This concept is known as Circular Economy and our future depends on how fast we make a transition towards it. 

About Sustainability, Circular Economy and Triple Impact

The terms ‘Sustainability’ and ‘Circular Economy’ are widely used nowadays, but often misused in similar contexts. Thus, some previous clarifications are needed.

Sustainability reflects the balance between the three main pillars that support any society: environmental, economic, and social development. Conceptually, Sustainability encompasses an incredibly broad discipline along each pillar, including synergies and trade-offs between them. But, in general, integrating these three spheres is a complex task which requires collective efforts from both public and private entities.

The responsibility for achieving Sustainability success is global, and individual contributions can vary the full extent of its impact, depending on how many of these  pillars are merged in our actions. The most proactive players in carrying out sustainable actions are those who impact the three categories simultaneously. This initiative has already created a new concept: The Triple impact. Having a triple impact means contributing, at the same time, to environmental resilience, economic performance, and social development. 

Circular Economy is a necessary condition for Sustainability success and a key tool for achieving Triple Impact activities. Circularity constitutes a virtuous loop where the value chain is regenerated itself minimizing the extraction of resources through the own waste streams valorization, sending them back into the loop.

Valorization refers to any alternative process within the value chain that promotes material or energy recovery of waste streams which are frequently disposed.
Any measure taken in the present will certainly have a positive impact in the future, and social actors that promote Triple Impact activities are the ones called to lead the change.

Increasing circularity: Targets to close the loop

Theoretically, Circular Economy is the most efficient path to ensure sustainable growth. But the circle has not been closed yet. Production and consumption are still growing drivers of the actual social and economic model; however, a consistent gap exists regarding the recovery of the residues generated from those activities. There are plenty of waste streams, as many as materials and processes for each of them. Thus, the obvious question is: Where to start from? And the most logical answer is: With the biggest streams.

According to The World Bank, organics are the actual biggest waste streams generated worldwide, and represent 50% of global waste. Food production and consumption are increasing daily, and the different sources of waste generation such as commercial, residential or food industry are managed in very different ways, with different degrees of success. On the other hand, biosolids also have their own management practices achieving more consistent results, but with great room for improvement in their performance. There is a wide variety of techniques available to process the organic fraction of waste such as composting, anaerobic digestion, incineration, and landfilling. Among these processes, composting organic waste is a great solution to turn agricultural soils intocarbon sinks. But it is usually limited by the quality of material. Only organic waste streams subject to source-separated collection can deliver the quality standards to comply with international laws and regulations. The main disadvantage found in composting is that the non-source-separated material does not meet the minimum requirements, to be applied in soils due to high concentration of residuals or pollutants. 

The other existing alternative to incineration and landfilling is anaerobic digestion. This process is used to produce biogas from organics, reduce their volume, and produce a useful digestate for agricultural purposes. This process presents less limitations in terms of feedstock requirements and is becoming increasingly popular  to transform both organic waste and biosolids. The former presents several problems related to the process stability such as heavily relying on the physicochemical heterogeneity of these streams, while the latter offers more consistency but lower biogas recovery rates due to the properties of the material. Most of the non-source-separated organic material processed in AD ends up in landfills, entailing economic losses and environmental damage; so, is there any solution togenerate more revenues and minimize impacts? There is not a single answer for that question, but to simplify, facilities are not cost-efficient enough because they face
multiple operational challenges. Consequently, the solution exclusively consists of prioritizing technological development. 

Triple impact solution

Given this challenging scenario, it seems that the anaerobic digestion is the right treatment to divert organic waste from landfill, while producing a digestate that can be applied into soils and generating renewable energy efficiently. Indeed, it is the right technology, but insufficient if it stands alone.

Would it be possible to design a pretreatment that could make AD facilities cost-efficient? Is it feasible to enhance the performance of existing industrial facilities? Are we squeezing all the real resources and revenues contained within the organics? Would it be possible to gather all the different organic waste streams in a single process line? How could we extract the organic content from mixed streams to be also separated and processed? Thinking big and facing major global challenges in Circular Economy are conditions that ECONWARD is meeting to reach a Triple Impact solution:

  • Efficiency by simplifying the operation of complex physical, chemical, and biological processes, generating new value chains, and increasing revenues as key
    points to ensure a better economic performance of AD facilities.
  • Creativity in processing more and different waste streams in less space, reducing its negative effects on population and its geographical context, and multiplying the generation of renewable energy as key drivers to ensure social development.
  • Transforming organics into energy widely contribute to reducing Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, which cause serious damage on the environment. Bioenergy actively reduces methane and black carbon emissions from burning or decaying organic matter. The carbon footprint reduction, odorless waste facilities, landfill avoidance, and renewable energy are essential to achieve carbon neutrality and replace fossil fuels. These facts ensure an effective contribution to environmental resilience.

Understanding the drivers to tackle major existing challenges from Sustainability perspective is crucial to become a decisive game-changer. The economic, environmental, and social pillars need to be addressed to successfully apply Circular Economy principles in a comprehensive approach. Both public bodies and private corporations are beginning to consider the benefits related to Triple Impact solutions, and at the time, ECONWARD is a leading actor bringing them to the forefront. Hopefully, we will still have Earth resources by this time of the year in the near future.