Spain Study tour: Waste sorting and Innovations in packaging for recycling

On 17th May, project partners from the Circular Based Waste Management project visited Logroño in Spain, on a study tour to learn about waste management practices, citizen engagement and projects and entrepreneurial work being carried out towards circular practices.

The group first visited the Ecopark of La Rioja, a waste management facility that sorts plastic, cans and organic waste. The facility is owned by Consorcio de Aguas y Residuos (Consortium of Water and Waste) a public entity, and operated by a company which currently has a contract to operate it for 20 years.

Plastic and cans from the yellow bins arriving at the facility are separated into different types including PET, PEAD, PEBD, brick, mixed plastic, iron and aluminium. Any waste that does not fit these categories is sent to the landfill. After initial sorting the material passes through two stages of quality control, first using optic sorting technology and finally through manual sorting. The material recovered is then sold to recycling facilities around the country. The location and quantity sent, is dictated by the Consortium of Water and Waste every month and the profit from the sale of the material goes to the public entity owning the facility.

Organic waste separated during pre-treatment undergoes anaerobic digestion, a process of degradation of organic matter using bacteria and in the absence of oxygen. The Ecopark counts on 6 digesters to produce methane with this method and generate electricity. Part of the energy generated is used to maintain the digesters at 55o C and the rest (approximately 75%) is sold to the electricity company. Once the organic matter has passed through the digestion process, it is fully fermented, and deposited in closed warehouses with air supply and flipped periodically in order to allow it to fully mature and stabilise. The resulting compost is then donated to the local farms and vineyards.

Education and awareness on recycling and waste management is also an important service offered by the Ecopark. University students from environmental disciplines but also engineering visit the site to learn both about its role in waste management socially but also technologically.

The local government of La Rioja region encourages schools to visit the facility as part of their curriculum. Schoolchildren as young as 5 years old visit the facility where they can begin to learn about waste sorting and recycling. Children and youngsters visit the facility at various stages in their educational level with the content presented to them becoming more technical the older they are. The Ecopark is open to the public and any group or family may contact them to arrange a guided visit.

The second stop of our visit was The Circular Lab, the first innovation centre in Europe for a Circular Economy. The Circular Lab is an initiative by Ecoembes the organisation that ensures packaging firms abide by their legal responsibility to ensure household packaging they place in the market is recycled. This includes light household packaging waste such as plastic, metal, paper and carton.

At The Circular Lab, a number of projects are under development and solutions are being tested across various locations in Spain with the purpose to establish circular practices in waste management across the country.

SmartWaste, is an information platform that with the aid of artificial intelligence and data analysis aims to improve efficiency in collection and recycling of packaging as part of the workings of an effective smart city. The platform collects data such as rate of waste production, distance between containers and people, and calculates volume and density of waste. In combination with the demographic data the municipality holds, and the data collected by the platform, route planning is optimised and traceable. Furthermore, a more wholistic view of the impact of waste management is acquired. The system is currently present in 5 locations, serving 1.5 million citizens.

VARPEL is a system that captures photos from which information is extracted to calculate the volume and density of waste material.

Digital Twin is a simulator of a waste treatment plant, which allows to change parameters in order to understand how to optimise its functionality depending on how circumstances change such as volumes received and types of material.

Circular Trust uses blockchain technology in order to optimize waste selection, collection and recycling while reducing costs and environmental impact. The use of blockchain offers greater control of information by establishing smart contracts and generating documentary evidence as well as automating payments. In this way the entire process is transparent and more efficient. Since it started operations in 2020, hundreds of daily transactions have been registered in more than 90 sorting plants in Spain. In the first half of 2022, an average of 4,725 withdrawals and around 18,000 monthly transactions have been processed and recorded in the blockchain network. The system allows traceability of waste from citizen to recycler as traceability of the material is important to ensure the quality and origins of the material.

The HolyGrail project examines traceability of materials with the use of digital watermarks. Digital watermarks invisible to the naked eye are printed on containers that can be recognised optically by sorting machines and through a mobile app, helping citizens to better sort their waste.

The “Percibidos” project places focus on citizen behaviours and the customer journey so as to understand citizen psychology with respect to packaging and waste. Citizens are encouraged to send photos of their waste sorting spaces in their homes; this activity has shown that people manage to sort their waste even in limited spaces, indicating that the limit of space is more mental than physical. In another activity, citizens have been asked to wear eye tracking glasses to see what citizens focus on when purchasing items.

Reciclos is an initiative based on incentivising recycling habits. The idea began in 2018 and scaled to 267 machines in 2022 with 8.5m users. Citizens are encouraged to deposit their recyclables in a reverse vending machine in exchange for points which they collect by scanning a QR code through the Reciclos app on their mobile phone. Points collected can be used to take part in lucky draws for prizes or donated to selected charitable causes.

Further to the reverse vending machines, Reciclos is studying how to retrofit the current yellow bins with a “smart ring” that can detect the material deposited and incentivise citizens under the same scheme. The concept is currently being tested on 16 units in real conditions to ensure it can handle all weather conditions and environments as well as the lifting of the bins by the trucks when being emptied.  The “smart ring” can identify users with a card or the Reciclos app and it can identify items both by reading the barcode and scanning the item itself.

The entrepreneurship area of The Circular Lab has as a main strategy to cooperate with startups and entrepreneurs from all around the world. It operates as an accelerator that helps startups working in circular economy aspects, mainly packaging of the future, awareness and smart waste, to develop their solutions and make them more efficient. They have a wide network across Europe and help the startups find collaborators.

A certification called the GoCircular Pass is awarded to the startups with the highest potential in circular economy. To obtain this seal, companies go through an evaluation process involving internal and external experts. Startups use this as a quality seal when pitching to investors.

The Circular Packaging Challenge was a competition between startups from all around Europe to identify the best solutions to promote for the circularity of packaging. The Circular Lab evaluated over 10,000 startups from around Europe. 320 were selected out of which 15 were offered the possibility to attend a final event to pitch their ideas. 4 winners were announced, and these have now been connected to the packaging industry and becoming involved in various projects with large industry players.

Another competition, the Circular Urban Challenge, involved collaboration with the municipality of Logroño. Startups working in circular economy in packaging and cities were scouted and evaluated with 100 final candidates selected. The competition ended with 7 winners who are now working closely with The Circular Lab.

The Circular Talent Labs is a programme aiming to support young talent by putting together teams of university students to work for 3-6 months on defined circular economy challenges. The programme is designed for participants to work in an open environment that allows for innovation with the help and guidance of mentors. The final goal is for the students to gain experience, expand their professional development and obtain a viable minimum product that can be industrialised.

Guided by principles of eco-design, projects by The Circular Lab further aim to create packaging that is sustainable.

PackCD is a software tool that can be used to predict the environmental impact of containers already from the design stage. The tool gives information on how the container will behave from when it is discarded, through to it being reincorporated as a new product. It further offers insights on sustainability and suggestions for improvement.

Research is also conducted on new materials, such as bioplastics under the Bio-Bio project where organic materials that can be 100% decomposed can be used in packaging, such as potato peels or other waste derived from plants.

While trying to ensure future packaging is sustainable and with a reduced footprint, The Circular Lab explores what the packaging of the future will look like. The Observatory of the Packaging of the Future, is a knowledge platform which collects and analyses trends and news that are published worldwide in packaging.

More photos from the study tour can be found on the project’s facebook page here.

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

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