Webinar: The Circular Lab – Innovations in packaging design for recycling

On 2nd February we had the opportunity to learn about initiatives in Spain on packaging design for circularity.

Mr. Daniel Menchaca and Mr. David Ceniceros Innovation Specialists at Ecoembes, introduced the organisation and the projects taking place at The Circular Lab, the first innovation centre in Europe for a Circular Economy.

Ecoembes was founded in 1996 to ensure packaging firms abide by their legal responsibility for recycling the household packaging they put on the market. This includes paper-and-cardboard waste as well as light household packaging waste including plastic, metal, and carton.

They collaborate with all city councils in Spain who provide bins for separate waste disposal and rely on cooperation from the citizens which sort their packaging waste at home. They also collaborate with the more than 12,000 companies in Spain that introduce packaging materials into the market. Furthermore, they have collaborations with the recycling plants, sorting companies, citizen associations, research centres and universities. They also work with education centres and schools to educate children and raise awareness among citizens on the topic as well as social entities to help people get jobs.

Almost 6 years ago, Ecoembes established The Circular Lab, an innovation centre based in the La Rioja region in the North of Spain. The Circular Lab aims to be an international reference of using an entire region as a real scale laboratory for research, piloting and validating solutions in real circumstances of the lifecycle of packaging in a circular economy.

In this respect, The Circular Lab works along four lines of innovation, namely eco-design, smart waste, citizen science and entrepreneurship.

Under eco-design, the aim is to create more sustainable packaging. They do so by providing tools that help companies create more sustainable packaging, analyse its lifecycle and monitor novel developments and news in packaging. Another aspect they look at under eco-design is creating products from packaging waste, particularly from fractions that are not easily recycled. In addition, they conduct research on new materials, such as bioplastics.

Through smart waste, they examine how technology is applied in the entire line of processing waste from sorting, collection and evaluating the quality of waste items. Smart waste also looks at how waste collection can be made more efficient through the use of IoT and AI tools. City halls have access to these tools, that give them information about their waste containers such as volumes, density, collection frequency and times. Sorting plants in Spain are all automatic, and now they are looking at making them more efficient through digitalisation.

Working with waste comes with a few challenges for technology startups, often resulting in the sector being unappealing to work in. The nature of waste, accumulating dirt, the frequent movement and transportation of the bins, being in the outdoors, all mean that tools need to be able to cope and keep operating accurately under adverse and unpredictable circumstances.

As citizens are on the front line when it comes to sorting waste, they need to considered when analysing how they can recycle better through innovation. Their project Reciclos, offers incentives to citizens when they recycle in the form of points. These can be donated to social causes, for example, at the moment for aid in Ukraine, or the volcano eruption that happened in the Canary Islands. Points can also be used to take part in a raffle to win prizes, or on public transport and even to rent public bicycles. Reciclos is currently used by a population of 7 million and now exists in all Spanish states though not in all cities yet. Furthermore, under the citizen science line, collaborations with universities and research centres are in place to analyse citizen’s behaviour with respect to waste packaging handling, sorting and sentiment.

The Circular Lab relies on a community of companies, entrepreneurs and students to help develop all their projects and initiatives. In doing so, they turn help the start-ups develop their ideas. They work with companies internationally.

In the 6 years The Circular Lab has existed, over 150 projects have been developed with over 200 partners and 30 research centres and universities. Their start-up community is comprised of 297 companies today.

They also work on projects funded by EU and the Spanish government. One of the projects, consists of multiple partners from many countries aiming to develop solutions for biodegradable plastic products and the latter. Another one, aims to improve selection and identification of waste to digitally transform sorting plants.

An important part of the work at The Circular Lab is to combine and detect talent and knowledge that can be used to circularise the value chain of light packaging. One of the tasks of the centre have been to combine the different initiatives setup in other value chains, learn from them and adapt them to light packaging.

Their Accelerator programmes is also a key initiative. Within internal projects they work with startups equity free and develop projects that help solving technical needs. Startups are provided with help and ways to test and improve the technology they are developing. One example, is an artificial vision technology developed by an entrepreneur and used in agriculture that was adapted to help improve the working systems in a sorting plant. The system helps better identify the materials that arrive at the plant through drones and cameras.

Another important part of for their startup ecosystem is their focus on how to promote the circular economy between players in the lightweight packaging value chain.

They have developed tools such as the Go Circular Radar, a map of start-up companies working in circular economy, with companies listed from Spain and other countries. Some of the public administrations in Spain are using the tool to establish projects and solve issues with the help of these companies.

The Go Circular Pass is a seal of excellence created for startups used to promote those that have the biggest potential in circular economy. To obtain this seal, companies go through an evaluation process involving internal and external experts. Startups that have the seal can benefit from being promoted and presented to larger companies so as to help them increase their business.

The Circular Urban Challenge was a project in collaboration with the municipality of Logroño, where the best startups working in circular economy in packaging and cities were selected. Over 3,000 startups within sustainability and green economy were scouted and evaluated. 100 candidates were selected with 7 overall winners from France, UK, Italy and Spain. The winners are now working closely with The Circular Lab.

The Circular Packaging Challenge is similar to the above but in collaboration with 27 companies and the focus was on startups with solutions for the industry and the connection of citizens and packaging. Over 10,000 startups from around Europe were evaluated with 320 selected out of which, 15 had the possibility to attend a networking event and pitch their initiative. 4 winners were announced that were from Spain, UK and Norway. The startups have been connected to the packaging industry and are now becoming involved in various projects with large industry players.

The Circular Based Waste Management project is funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA and Norway Grants Fund for Regional Cooperation – eeagrants.org.

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