The 25th COVAP Technical Conference reveals the production changes involved in implementing the circular economy

The 25th COVAP Technical Conference reveals the production changes involved in implementing the circular economy | COVAP

Under the title ‘The Circular Economy: Reduction, Reuse and Recycling’, the 25th edition of the conference has focused on the need to change current paradigms transversally: consumers, institutions and across production sectors, including a special position for crop- and livestock farming and the food industry. Various European forums, such as the 2015 Paris Summit, have shown that we must advance towards a zero-waste concept if current consumption levels, which are on the increase and look set to keep rising over the coming decades, are to be sustainable.

One of the conclusions put forward during the first section of presentations was to note that 48% of the waste generated in Spain today goes to landfills, showing that the level of reuse is extremely low. The sub-director general of waste at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and the Environment (Mapama), Paloma López-Izquierdo Botín, said, “We can't afford to go on like this, because raw materials are increasingly more costly and scarce, particularly in Spain." She added that we are forced to make a major effort because "we are still a long way from reaching our targets". According to Mapama's representative, the key is to segregate materials, and this need must be accepted by society as a whole. 

Paloma López-Izquierdo believes that in the coming years we will see greater “harmonisation of regional legislation” to achieve more equal waste charges across the regions, in order to avoid "waste tourism", because it is very common for industries to ship their waste out to other regions where charges are lower. “People need to realise that if you pollute, you pay," she stressed.

Building awareness among consumers and communication are going to be essential factors. This view was shared by María Rincón Liévana, the EU's circular-economy policy officer. She noted that the need for a consensus to be reached between producers and consumers will have a number of benefits:  “Maximising the use of products, reusing raw materials, creating sustainable jobs, respecting the environment and slowing climate change." According to María Rincón, it is “very important” to help consumers to choose sustainable products and for reliable mechanisms to be in place for determining these. This awareness must also be extended to the public-sector procurement.

Livestock waste: an opportunity

The sub-director-general of livestock production at Mapama, Arnaldo Cabello, stressed how important the handling of livestock waste is for districts like Los Pedroches with a large, varied herd. He also noted, however, that “every district, every area, every farm needs an appropriate well-adapted solution, because it is not possible to apply a single strategy."

Cabello was followed by the head of the environment, bioenergy and industrial hygiene department at the AINIA Technology Centre, Andrés Pascual Vidal, who presented a new initiative, the Biogas 3 project, a tool for assessing waste-handling alternatives. He stressed how important farming-industry will be for biorefinery operations, thanks to the handling and use of livestock waste for energy purposes.

This section of the conference concluded with  Fernando Ederra Ansó, managing director of Tauste Centro Gestor de Estiércoles S.L., presenting his firm's experience of the efficient, sustainable management of purines generated by livestock farming in its area of influence for use by local farmers. The firm currently has 87 associate farms and 300 member farmers, with 16,000 hectares of land able to be fertilised. In 2017 they managed 300,000 cubic metres of manure.

One of the actions taken has been to fit purine-storage tanks on high ground to supply the by-product to the farmers for use on their fields.

The challenge of food waste

The communication and institutional relations director of the Multisector Manufacturers and Distributors Association (AECOC), Nuria de Pedraza Barbero, stressed that one of the challenges the world now faces is the management and reduction of food waste. Resources are becoming increasingly scarce, the  population are growing, and it is necessary to make food production more sustainable, as one third of the food produced worldwide is currently lost. De Pedraza noted that large quantities of food are "thrown away", and although fingers are usually pointed at the distribution sector whenever this matter is raised, "the truth is that over the whole value chain and in society there are various contributing factors involved that we can't afford to allow to continue." Specifically, Nuria de Pedraza pointed out that most of the waste in the process, 39%, comes from industry and the primary sector, 42% during consumption, 14% in catering and only 5% in distribution.

“We're going to need to increase food production by 70% in order to cover the growth of the world population, and this will only be possible if we can  manage resources better," the AECOC representative said. However, Nuria de Pedraza noted that food waste is a problem for different reasons in all countries, regardless of how developed they are. Spain is in seventh place in the waste ranking, which is led by the United States, according to data she cited. 

Closing ceremony

COVAP's chairman, Ricardo Delgado Vizcaíno, explained during the closing ceremony that when the possibility of addressing the circular economy at this 25th anniversary was first raised, "we didn't think twice, because we are very aware of how important it is to apply the three "R"s in our business philosophy: reduction in the use of resources, reuse and recycling." Delgado Vizcaíno promised that “COVAP is going to be at the forefront, striving to lead in processes of this type to improve productivity and competitiveness, because it has become clear today that this is the path we must follow if we are to continue to be a benchmark going forward." “We must work effectively and strategically to conserve our environment," the Chairman said, adding that “we have to act and be consistent in the development of our production." The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is also, Ricardo Delgado said, becoming greener all the time and ever more demanding in terms of the valuation of resources.

With regard to livestock, the COVAP Chairman referred to the efforts being made by the cooperative's technical services to work with members to optimise water and energy use and the management of livestock waste through various projects that are already under discussion and will emerge as another form of sustainable development.

In his speech at the conference, the Andalusian regional minister of agriculture, fisheries and rural development, Rodrigo Sánchez Haro said that COVAP's commitment towards the circular economy “is a clear demonstration of integration, entrepreneurship and commitment to innovation and the optimal use of resources." In Andalusia, he said, "we have been getting ready for this situation for some time now," with a model that "not only reduces the consumption of resources but also provides opportunities for job creation." There are many examples of this, such as mixing waste from vegetable- and fruit-processing plants with straw and subjecting it to silage process to make a nutritious feed for livestock. Farming in the region “is already making a decisive contribution to the circular economy, but we have to keep moving forward in the management of these items, opening new markets for bioproducts so that the sector can keep growing sustainably," the minister said.

Sánchez Haro insisted on the challenges of improving efficiency and sizing, driving innovation, digitisation and environmental protection. The latter is one of the objectives of the coming Andalusian Farming Act, improving the sustainability of farming activities by shifting towards a circular economy based on "closing the life cycle” of products, services, waste, leftovers and by-products, materials, water and energy. Likewise, regarding the social role of the food chain, “certain retail outlets and industries are obliged to donate their surpluses for social purposes," without forgetting that industry will have to come up with plans to reduce food waste.

In addition, the Strategic Plan for the Farming Industry in Andalusia,  Horizon 2020, cites the bioeconomy and circular economy as future challenges. In this, the minister said, the region is starting from a "good position". Proof of this, he said, is the fact the European Commission “has chosen us as a model demonstration model, because of our professionalism, our growth horizon and our commitment towards innovation and research."

Other speakers at the closing ceremony, besides the regional minister and COVAP chairman, were the environment director of Tetra Pak Iberia, Víctor Marcos, and the regional director of Banco Santander, Justiniano Cortés Mancha.