Sludge and the Circular Economy

Creating wealth from Sludge

The most common examples of the circular economy in practice are in sectors like consumer electronics – high value products and technologically focused. Indeed, many of the initial opportunities, or “lowest hanging fruit”, have been in developing business models around reuse, refurbishment and remanufacturing, and it is likely that the economic gain from those opportunities will continue to be lucrative. However, the transition to a circular economy will also require the creation of new flows of resources and materials.

In some cases, it is possible to create cycles where products and their materials are kept within “controllable loops”, but changing the global economy will also require the re-utilisation of waste streams that can not be cycled in this way. One of the circular economy’s fundamental principles is that “waste equals food”.

Significant progress is being made in that direction already and in many cases it is being led by companies previously prescribed the role of simply collecting and dealing with the waste created by a linear economy.

As economies are changing and valuations of materials evolve, it is becoming evident that former waste managers are moving towards being “material managers”. Waste management sector companies are actually one of the best placed to take advantage of the opportunities created by a transition from a linear to a circular economy, by rethinking their traditional place as “end-of-pipe” actors.

Johan Borje, director of marketing and business development at Ragn-Sells, a Sweden-based waste sector company told Circulate: “It is an evolution where the demands on us – from customers and competition – is to extract as much material out of waste streams as possible.”

Borje went on to discuss the company’s changing relationship with its customers:

“We see us further integrating into the business processes of our customers. This will help to reduce waste, recycle more of the waste created, as well as enable reverse logistics services”.

Of course, the strongest driver of maximising the value of waste is the economics. In one example, Ragn-Sells is working to extract phosphorus from sewage sludge to be used in agriculture and to re-enter the biological cycle as a natural fertiliser.

Sewage sludge is possibly the ultimate characterisation of waste. However, Ragn-Sells – working through subsidiary EasyMining Sweden – have identified it as a flow of nutrients with potential value to the economy.

Ragn-Sells sends 160,000 tonnes of sewage sludge directly to agriculture annually for fertiliser (already around 80% of the amount it handles), but by utilising EasyMining Sweden’s “CleanMAP technology”, the company is now also aiming to extract valuable nutrients from the sludge – the most notable of which is phosphorus.

For many, thinking about phosphorus might bring back painful memories of trying to remember the periodic table, but its role and importance in our economic system is frequently under-stated. It is an essential chemical element for life and plays a critical role in our food systems as a required nutrient that typically enters the food chain by being drawn up from the soil through plant roots. Like many of the world’s essential resources, it is also finite, but it does cycle naturally in the environment. The problem is that increasing food demands from growing populations have been met by modern intensive farming methods, where high yield crops are generated by irrigation techniques and the use of pesticides, all of which necessitates higher levels of phosphorus being used than occur naturally.

Source: Circulate

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