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“An ambitious project with clear, consistent targets. We can deliver!” – César Aliaga on a critical year for PlastiCircle

14 January 2019

As the PlastiCircle project enters its most important year, project co-ordinator César Aliaga gives the lowdown on concrete targets and big plans for 2019 - when the team takes its innovations to pilot communities in Spain, the Netherlands and Romania.

PlastiCircle is one of a clutch of European Commission-funded initiatives aiming at a circular economy for plastics. What did this project set out to achieve specifically?

PlastiCircle aims to improve the quality and quantity of the packaging waste we collect, in order to boost recycling and also turn this waste into value-added products. These products might be foam boards, automotive parts, bituminous roofing membranes, garbage bags, asphalt sheets, roofing felts and urban furniture of various kinds. Now, packaging represents more than 60% of the total plastic waste generated in Europe, so we need this approach in order to achieve a circular economy for plastics more generally.

But with PlastiCircle, we also have more specific targets for the project. What we also want to achieve is to boost collection rates, the efficiency of waste transportation, the efficiency of waste sorting, and of course plastic recovery rates in Europe.

To give an idea, in countries such as Spain and Romania, plastic packaging collection rates are 75% and 59% respectively. With PlastiCircle, we want to increase this to 87%. For waste transportation we specifically want to increase the filling levels in the containers, and of course reduce fuel consumption by the vehicles. This makes for a more economically viable way of doing things.

In terms of sorting packaging wastes at the sorting plants, PlastiCircle has the target of reducing material losses in sorting to less than 20% (whereas the average in Europe today is 25%). We also aim to improve precision in sorting to more than 95% - something which Europe isn’t achieving at the moment.

And of course PlastiCircle has targets for the inclusion of recycled plastics in new products. For example, in Europe, 79% of the PET we use is recycled – PlastiCircle wants to bring this up to 85% when we are making our foam boards and automotive parts. The same applies for other waste fractions. In Europe, 43% of PE film is recycled plastic. When we make garbage bags and roofing membranes with this fraction, we want the recycled content to be 50%. So this really is an ambitious project all round, with clear, consistent targets.

What's so innovative about PlastiCircle? What added value does this project bring to the table?

The innovation in PlastiCircle is structured in four areas: collection, transport, sorting and recycling. In collection we are developing a smart container able to identify the user and compensate his or her performance in waste separation. In transport we are implementing new technologies to optimise the route taken by driver, in addition to” truck traceability” and external communication through a cloud platform.

In sorting, the project is working on new technologies able to sort even more typologies of plastics and do this with higher efficiencies (these technologies include NIR, SWIR, THz push broom scanner, whisk broom scanner, film-stabilising conveyor).

Finally, collected and sorted plastics will be used for new applications which currently use other higher quality plastics. The innovation here is to use post-consumer plastics for the manufacturing of the added-value products I mentioned previously – from automotive parts to garbage bags to urban furniture.

The first phase of PlastiCircle is almost over, with pilot projects being prepared. What is PlastiCircle going to do in its three European pilot cities?

PlastiCircle is going to test the complete approach on collection and transport in the three pilot cities: Valencia, Utrecht and Alba Iulia. Moreover, the material collected will be used for the subsequent stages of sorting and recycling developed within the project. Therefore, pilots will be a real validation of the technologies and processes being developed in the project. It should be noted that the participation of citizens is key for the pilots and therefore we are working on the preparation of a strong communications campaign.  

What are the most challenging aspects of running this innovation-driven project?

PlastiCircle is a very motivating project since it brings solutions to problems that are very well known – such as environmental problems associated with plastic waste. But it is also a real challenge getting the entire plastics value chain to work together; including waste managers, recycling companies, citizens, plastic manufacturers, researchers, cities and so forth. But the results until now are very promising and I am confident that this approach will be implemented in the EU in the following years.

Once the pilots in Valencia, Utrecht and Alba Iulia are completed, will further European cities be able to adopt PlastiCircle technologies and innovations to tackle plastic waste?

We have a “follower city” within the project: Velenje in Slovenia. This city will help the project to spread the results in central Europe. Moreover, we are receiving continuous contacts and queries asking about the results of the projects, so I am confident that PlastiCircle can really represent a revolution in plastic waste treatment since many stakeholders and cities are just waiting for the results to be ready to be implemented.

What does 2019 hold in store for PlastiCircle? What are the next steps in this project?

2019 is really a promising year for PlastiCircle since we are going to start the first pilot in Valencia in April, which will be the reference for the next pilots in Utrecht and Alba Iulia. Waste collection will take place in Valencia’s pilot neighbourhood, San Marcelino, between April to September, and at that point we will send the waste materials collected to project partners Picvisa and Axion (for sorting and recycling respectively). This first pilot will be crucial in laying the groundwork for the other pilots, and of course an effective campaign to engage citizens to take part in this pilot will be vital.

The same will apply for our efforts in Utrecht, starting in August this year, and for Alba Iulia, where we will launch the pilot in December.

Finally, in 2019 we will also be finishing some developments in the four innovation areas of the project so that we will be able to offer new results to the European Commission. The expectations are high, but we are confident we can deliver!