Building on eco-innovative excellence in the regions of Europe

The ReNEW project (Resource Innovation Network for European Waste) has brought together a number of universities and research institutes, business development agencies and government departments, to study how links between researchers, business and public authorities can be improved to stimulate the take-up of innovation.

The universities and research institutes involved in the project are all working on advanced technologies that offer the potential to extract resources from waste streams. For example, project partner VITO (Vision on Technology, Flanders) is studying processes to recover useful chemicals from organic waste, and to recover valuable metals from mixed industrial waste. Martin Doherty of project partner WRAP Northern Ireland, a resource efficiency advisory centre, highlighted some of the lessons so far from the ReNEW project.

What are the project’s objectives?
Martin Doherty: The principle aim of the project is to look at enhanced innovation and collaboration in north-west Europe. We chose waste materials management as the vehicle with which to examine how barriers to innovation can be overcome. The main focus of the project has been on industrial waste streams, rather than municipal waste streams.

We’re looking at advanced technologies for extraction of high value materials from waste. For example, we can take waste paper, subject it to hydrolysis and pull out chemicals that can then go back into industry. We’re looking much higher up the waste hierarchy to explore the potential for innovation across north-west Europe to address the scarcity of materials and add to the competitiveness of European industry. In essence are seeking to implement a more circular approach to materials management and move away from the traditional take, make and dispose ideology.

ReNEW is also looking to improve linkages between existing research centres, to seek to grow a cooperative spirit that will be mutually beneficial for each region, for example, VITO in Flanders and the Technology Centre for Biorefining and Bioenergy (TCBB) in Limerick, Ireland, have been sharing best practice in exploring the potential to remove valued materials from waste paper streams. This approach has the potential to improve the capacity of innovation centres, which can trigger improved economic performance in each region, improving the opportunities for business to get access to the latest, state-of-the-art thinking in terms of materials, waste management, extraction management and ways of dealing with environmental contamination.

There are various stages of technology readiness – from the initial idea, through various stages of bench-top analysis to pilot projects to commercialisation. These stages are known as TRLs [Technology Readiness Levels] and normally range from 1-9. ReNEW is exploring the innovation zone stages 4-7, which is the buffer zone between research and commercialisation, often referred to as the valley of death. Unfortunately there is a very high rate of attrition in terms of what research doesn’t make it to the market. We can no longer really afford that, so we’ve been looking at how we can create a basis for the use of these technologies by the integration of research institutes, universities and business, especially the small to medium-sized sector.