Sensor development indispensable for achieving circular economy objectives

Jasper Schmeits

Over the past 100 years, the world’s population has more or less quadrupled, and we have now passed the 7.5 billion mark. And although the growth rate is slowing down, the United Nations expects population growth will continue in the long term, reaching an estimated 11 billion around 2087. This means the demand for raw material will further increase, while the available supply is only decreasing. This relates as much to the need for sufficient food and healthy drinking water, as to things like housing, fuels, the manufacturing industry, waste, etc. How are we going to tackle this?

A circular economy in the Netherlands by 2050

In September 2016 the government drew up the “A Circular Economy in the Netherlands by 2050” programme aimed at developing a fully circular economy by 2050. I am proud that Tauw is one of the 325 signatories to this programme, and that we have undertaken to be responsible for helping to create a future-proof world, eliminating leakages from our system (waste) and working on a situation in which raw materials can be preserved and reused time and again. There are many more options available to us than we currently make use of. The year 2050 may seem a long way off, but it will be here faster than we think. Taking steps and breaking with trends is therefore crucial! But this will not happen if we leave our current processes untouched!

From cassette tape to Spotify

Innovation happens all the time, just look at the way we listen to music. In the early 1990s I was proud to be one of the first to have a CD player at home. This innovation halted the development of the cassette tape. By the end of the 1990s, technology had made a portable MP3 player possible. Initially they were expensive with a limited storage capacity, but prices dropped substantially in 2003 whilst storage capacity increased, leading to a surge in sales of these portable players. With the arrival of the mobile phone, and the subsequent integration of music applications (smartphones), MP3 players became obsolete and sales have been falling since 2008. Today it is normal to stream your music through Spotify, but for how long will we continue to do so? Which innovation will replace this system and how soon?

Time to take action 

It is good to see that our CEO Annemieke Nijhof not only signed this programme, but also implements this philosophy in our daily business. We are convinced that we need to switch to a circular system, one where we make clever use of sensor development and data processing. These items are high on the agenda and our management is investing time and money in them, which gives a strong impetus to further innovation in our processes. 

One example of where I think we can easily be innovative is in the way we carry out the bulk of our chemical analyses. Various (commercial) laboratories have made this their core business and we use them extensively, not only for the analysis of large quantities of soil and groundwater samples, but also for material measurements, such as identifying asbestos and other materials. This is associated with considerable waste, due to sampling of the measurements on site (such as sampling material, sampling containers/bottles and gloves), transport from the site to the laboratory, and the use of materials in the laboratory (such as solvents, acids, calibration solutions, gases, filters and pipettes). A first step in being innovative in this process is to carry out some of the measurements in a different way. 

With the help of an online sensor for measuring waste and surface water it becomes possible to measure a variety of parameters without using the chemical laboratory. This is a big step towards waste reduction. Just like the MP3 player, the costs of these systems are expected to drop over the next few years, making it a commercially viable alternative to conventional analyses in the laboratory. 

Within the context of the circular economy objectives I am in favour of using such systems, wherever possible, even if it is currently more expensive. To achieve this ambition we will need to embrace technological developments. The sensor immediately results in less transport, minimizes waste by excluding the laboratory, and yields additional benefits: it provides real-time (online) insight into the results, so that you can respond faster (proactively) to (unexpected) changes within the process.

Sensor development is the future

Sensor development is still in its infancy within Tauw, but many things are already technologically possible. That is why next year we want to further explore the possibilities in this field and reduce the use of (commercial) laboratories by expanding our sensor network. This is one of the steps towards a circular economy in 2050!

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