Innovative ways of recycling waste

10 May 2013


A new €4.88 million research project at Queen's University Belfast is aiming to recover valuable materials from the estimated 5.2 tonnes of waste we generate per person each year.

Known as ReNEW, the Questor Centre at Queen's is leading the project and is working with the US Department of the Environment and Belfast City Council to identify the needs of Northern Ireland's waste management industry and facilitate innovation among SMEs in the waste sector. 

The Questor Centre is a global environmental research network founded by Queens's University Belfast, is the only Centre outside the US to be included in the National Science Foundation's Programme for industry / university cooperative research centres.

Through the ReNEW project, the DoE will fund a new member of staff for the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to develop policy areas related to resource recovery.

ReNEW (Resource Innovation Network for European Waste) is a European initiative to bring together researchers, public authorities and businesses to explore new ways to extract valuable resources – such as metals, nutrients and chemicals – from household and industrial waste.

Dr Elaine Groom is general manager of Questor, which pioneers world-leading environmental research at Queen's. She says, ''Europe produces an estimated 5.2 tonnes of waste per person each year. This includes around 600-700kg per person of domestic waste, and 17kg per person of electrical goods waste. Much of this waste contains valuable resources, so we are missing a huge opportunity by simply disposing of it and sending it to landfill.

''Mobile phones, for example, are a valuable source of gold. Per gram, mobile phones contain more gold than gold ore - the average household has 22g of gold lying around in old mobiles. Similarly, valuable chemicals can be extracted from food waste and used to make bioplastics; while the extraction of phosphorus – a key ingredient in fertilisers - from food waste is becoming more and more important due to the depletion of natural phosphorus sources and increased mining costs.

''Waste is big business, and the recovery of valuable resources from waste presents huge opportunities for SMEs in Northern Ireland and across Europe. Many, however, face barriers in their efforts to develop new techniques for resource recovery. The best ideas require input and support from many disciplines - industry, entrepreneurs and scientists. ReNEW aims to bring these disciplines together to facilitate partnership working in the development of new technologies that will benefit the environment, the economy and society.''

Dr Groom has recently returned from Germany where she led a series of ReNEW engagement events with businesses who are keen to get ahead in the global market for raw materials derived from waste. Next week, she will speak at the ATWARM Conference (Advanced Technologies for Water Resource Management) in Dublin about research and innovation.

Dr Groom continues,  ''Waste represents a problem and an opportunity. While many businesses are aware of this, the limited options for processing waste present huge challenges which they cannot overcome by themselves. Through the ReNEW project, QUESTOR and partners will work with companies across Europe to raise awareness of the opportunities in this area, and to showcase and further develop new techniques for resource recovery. Ultimately, waste companies will become providers of raw materials, and we at QUESTOR will help them to be at the forefront of that journey.''

ReNEW is part-funded (€2.44Million) by the European Union's INTERREG IVB North West Europe scheme. The remaining funding is from the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7). [INTERREG IVB NWE is a financial instrument of the European Union's Cohesion Policy, which funds projects which support transnational cooperation to find innovative ways to make the most of territorial assets and tackle shared problems of regions.]

Commenting on the ReNew project environment minister Alex Attwood says, "It is essential we are an integral part of European projects such as ReNEW.  Northern Ireland's involvement in this innovative project which is bringing together organisations from across the island of Ireland and Europe, by our own Queen's University Belfast. This project will develop our knowledge base and skills to attract investment and allow our businesses to compete globally. We need to move faster and be decisive in accessing EU funding opportunities. Queens are one of our best examples of what can be done. Government must be full-square behind this type of organisation. We have to escalate what we do.

''The ReNEW project yet again highlights the potential value of waste when it arises. Considering waste as a resource will assist in making our society more sustainable and resource efficient resulting in jobs and benefits to our economy and the environment.''

Councillor Pat McCarthy, chairman of Belfast City Council's Health and Environmental Services Committee, says, ''Belfast City Council recognises the importance that resource management will have for the future economy both for the city and the north as a whole. This programme offers the opportunity for 'green' growth in the economy and will provide opportunities to reap the benefits of state-of-the-art thinking. The council will always seek to promote opportunities in this sector and it is fantastic to see one of our local universities leading the way in this field.''

The Questor centre has also been awarded €3.8 Million to lead a four year project to develop research and training for the European biogas industry. ATBEST (Advanced Technologies for Biogas Efficiency, Sustainability and Transport), is funded by Marie Curie ITN and involves research and industry partners in the UK, Ireland, Germany and Sweden. It will develop new technologies for the biogas sector to enable Europe to implement its Energy 2020 strategy and to address the challenges of increasing energy demands and costs.

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