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Interview with Cristina García-Vera, manager of the PLASTICE project in the company Urbaser

At ABN we are committed to sustainability and the circular economy. For this reason, we have started a series of interviews with professionals from different industries to present different sustainable projects at the service of society.

The first interview is with Cristina García-Vera, PLASTICE project manager at Urbaser. This is one of the world’s leading companies in environmental solutions. It is a global company focused on leveraging the value of the planet’s resources to “build a more sustainable tomorrow”. The company serves more than 70 million people in 15 countries through a network of more than 50,000 employees and 150 plants that drive “real circularity”.

The Plastice project is leading the revolution in plastics recovery through microwave-assisted pyrolysis

Cristina García-Vera. Urbaser

Q: Urbaser has three different business areas (urban services, urban waste treatment and industrial solutions) and you work on sustainability and innovation in all of them. How important is sustainability in the company’s overall strategy and in the development of new products and solutions?

A: At Urbaser we believe that innovation and knowledge are the main sources of economic growth and shared prosperity. It is worth highlighting the company’s ongoing commitment to making the circular economy the catalyst for our innovation culture. This concept accounts for more than 74% of our investment in innovation and embodies our mission of “Making circularity real”.

Urbaser aims to be exemplary in its behaviour, reinforcing its sustainable performance and increasing its positive social and environmental impact. This has enabled us to launch initiatives such as the first electric vehicle battery recycling plant on the Iberian Peninsula and the development of Europe’s first urban waste biorefinery.

Q: You have also recently received the National Innovation Award 2023. How important do you consider innovation to be for participating in and leading sustainable projects in your sector?

A: Innovation is a key tool that allows us to become an accelerator of advanced and cutting-edge techniques, complying with current regulations and increasing the sustainability of our entire activity.

Thanks to the implementation of R&D&I actions developed in collaboration with suppliers, universities and public and private research centres, we are able to make a direct and tangible contribution to the sustainability of our environment.

For more than twenty years of innovative activity, Urbaser has become a leading company in the sector and for this reason we have been awarded the National Innovation Award 2023 by the Ministry of Science and Innovation. This recognition reflects our strategic commitment to innovation and our leadership in environmental management and the circular economy at an international level. A commitment that is embodied in the promise to continue to drive innovation in our business in the years to come.

Q: In this sense, you are an active part of the PLASTICE project, an initiative in which you collaborate to find routes for the recovery of plastics in order to obtain sustainable raw materials with which to produce new plastics. What is your goal in partnering with other companies and educational and scientific institutions in this project?

A: Urbaser’s strategic lines of innovation include innovation in waste treatment processes under the concept of circular economy.

Specifically, since 2009 Urbaser has been committed to developing its own pyrolysis technology for urban plastic waste in order to obtain, initially, biofuels and, subsequently, pyrolytic liquids that can be reintroduced into the plastics manufacturing industry.

Within its initial objective, we have managed to validate, through the 3R2020+ project, the obtaining of diesel fuel suitable for automotive use. Subsequently, research has been carried out on the technical and economic validation of the process of transforming plastics into new raw materials on a continuous basis on a demonstration scale.

In line with this second objective, we aligned ourselves with the Circe technology centre, developer of a new microwave-assisted pyrolysis technology, and TotalEnergies as validator of the final product obtained, among other partners, to accommodate the project. PLASTICE “New technologies for the integration of plastic waste in the circular economy” and thereby further contribute to the improvement and optimisation of our resource recovery processes in order to transform them into products with higher added value.

Q: PLASTICE is developed in three different routes for the valorisation of plastic and Urbaser is involved in the first of them: microwave-assisted pyrolysis. As experts in this area, what is your role at PLASTICE?

A: In this scenario, microwave-assisted heating technology is positioned as an alternative with a high potential to overcome the limitations of conventional pyrolysis processes and, in particular, for the recovery of plastics that are difficult to recycle.

In addition, it offers several advantages over conventional heating processes, such as reduced processing times and heat losses and the possibility of electrifying the process and operating it with renewable energy, thus reducing pollutant emissions. Our mission is to demonstrate the feasibility of this technology in the near future.

Q: What steps have you taken and where does the PLASTICE project stand?

A: The PLASTICE project, funded by the European Commission with 15 million euros and coordinated by Circe, will implement this microwave-assisted pyrolysis process to recover mixtures of plastics that are difficult to separate.

The process is in an intermediate validation stage that will serve to optimise the influence of the parameters and adjust the optimal operating conditions for scaling up in the pilot plant at the “Alfonso Maillo” Waste Technology Innovation Centre (CIAM) operated by Urbaser in Zaragoza.

Q: How will the PLASTICE results be implemented?

A: The PLASTICE project is in its second year of implementation and will end in the second quarter of 2026. PLASTICE aims to deploy innovative elements along the entire value chain with the objective of integrating green technologies to make new processes sustainable and close the loop to generate circular value chains around plastics (including textiles with plastic content).

The project also works on recovery processes, integrating new sorting systems, digitisation tools and eco-design principles. Following this approach, PLASTICE will have an impact on the amount of plastics landfilled and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions linked to the operation of the process, as well as the reduction of fossil fuel based raw materials. Its replication will be supported by contributing to the development of new standards and regulations, and by creating a community of supporters supported by the tools and the PLASTICE consortium.