SMART-plant, circular economy from toilets

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An international project aims at recovering cellulose and biopolymers from water treatment plants.

From toilet to shelf. Although this image doesn’t look very inviting, it conceals one of the greatest revolutions of the circular economy: giving new life to things that we value even less than garbage. This is the aim of the international SMART-plant project, that makes it possible to recover cellulose, biopolymers, fertilizers and water from domestic sewage to create new consumption goods. This initiative involves Italy, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Greece, Portugal, Norway, Switzerland and Israel.

The project applies circular economy principles to municipal water treating plants in a simple and innovative way. It was first presented in Venice and has a budget of €9.6 billion, with 25 European partners and the coordination of the University of Verona. In Italy, “depuration 2.0” will be based in Carbonera, in the province of Treviso, in a treatment plant managed by Alto Trevigiano Servizi, the only Italian water utility taking part in the initiative. The other Italian partners are the University of Rome La Sapienza and the company Scae of Dueville, in the province of Vicenza.

Europe hosts about 22,000 active municipal water treatment plants, and investments in this sector are expected to exceed €37.6 billion by 2017. These figures increase dramatically considering expected investments from non-EU countries with growing economic-industrial development. Employing these huge investments for sustainable technical solutions and renewable resources recovery will contribute to the decontamination of the sewage system as well as to the development of the circular economy, which is encouraged, promoted and sponsored by the EU for the near future.

“There are sustainable techniques that allow to recover about 7 kg of cellulose, over 3 kg of polymers, 1 kg of phosphorus and over 4 kg of nitrogen every year from domestic sewage – explains Francesco Fatone, professor at the Biotechnology Department of the University of Verona – SMART-plant is there to verify the efficiency of such techniques, creating a European platform that will show the feasibility and sustainability of urban water treatment plant integration and transformation into recovery plants. This project will have a strong economic and social impact, in addition to its environmental benefits, which will be better quantified with the development of the project.”

“The role of SMART-plant water utilities – explains Marco Fighera, chairman of Alto Trevigiano Servizi – is to prove how our enterprises can benefit from water treatment, which in the past was considered as a minor activity in the field of water services. Being an association of both public and private authorities, we can and must be among the main actors of the circular market, in order to provide a more sustainable service for present and future users. An important strength of this project is the balanced mix of public bodies, such as Universities and ATSs, and private local associations: SMART-plant is the proof of how Italy and the Veneto region can be innovation leaders at the European level.”

“The Carbonera treatment plant – adds Daniele Renzi, coordinator of the project for Alto Trevigiano Servizi – is going to become the operative heart of the project. In addition to purifying polluting substances in a cheaper and more effective way, the plant will allow the recovery of phosphorus and biopolymers. Phosphorus is an important component of fertilizers and animal feed, and it is an increasingly rare resource. The production of biopolymers from depuration waste would enable a 30%-40% reduction of the actual material to be treated, as well as the production of plastics from sewage waste instead of petrol derivates. Our role within SMART-plant is to quantify the environmental and economic advantages of these technologies, so that they can be shared with other companies of the Italian Water Services.”

The SMART-plant project, acronym for “Scale-up of low-carbon footprint Material Recovery Techniques for upgrading existing wastewater treatment Plants”, was selected among 174 proposals sponsored by the EU within Horizon 2020, a European support project for research, development and innovation.

To find out more, visit the website of Alto Trevigiano Servizi.

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