Maria José Gonzalez is the project coordinator of Biovalor ‘Generating Value with Agroindustrial Waste’ implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) together with governent of Uruguay. In edited version of an interview with Emanuele Di Francesco of Circular Conversations, originally published in May 2020, she discusses Biovalor’s aim to deepen the concept of a circular economy and its applications in the Uruguayan context.
Let me start with the project you coordinate in Uruguay, Proyecto Biovalor. How did you get there and how was the project born?
I am an environmental engineer. Before joining Biovalor, I worked for a long time in waste management in both advocacy roles for waste recycling in an NGO, and in consultancy roles for local, national and international institutions. I also took part in the first national plan on waste management.
Biovalor is a project born of the government, which presented this idea to the Global Environmental Fund (GEF) through the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). One of the most interesting aspects is that it’s a transversal project with three ministries involved: Environment; Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries; and Industry and Energy. It’s a project with different interests on the table, thinking together about how to add value to agro-industrial waste.
How did the government come to propose such a project?
Back in 2013, the original name of the project was ‘Uruguay towards a Green Economy’. We didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, but we knew we needed to start.
The Ministry of Industry and Energy—which was promoting this transformation—proposed this project in order to add value to waste. We knew that agro-industrial waste-to-energy is not sustainable, so the Ministry of Agriculture tried to open our minds and think about other ways to add value.
Why the focus on agro-industrial waste?
The Uruguayan economy is very agro-industrial. We export large volumes of meat and milk, and we don’t have a lot of industry. We are primary-sector intensive, which is a sector that extracts a lot of natural resources by definition.
The project was initially focused on three technologies: anaerobic digestion, compost and nutrients recovery, and alternative combustion to transform waste into energy. Later on – thinking that these technologies might not have been good or feasible for different types of producers – they opened a fourth focus area for any other by-product. This has brought a lot of benefits to the project, opening an avenue for the exploration of other alternatives.
If you look at the ‘butterfly diagram from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we started with the least value-adding loops with traditional technology and we are now moving towards closed loops where we can add more value. Through the project, for instance, we have been promoting anaerobic digestion in a dairy farm. We are aware that this is not fully economically feasible and it’s not the panacea, but it’s better than landfill. In terms of long-term sustainability, however, these technologies are not enough.
For those who might not be aware of it, what is anaerobic digestion?
It’s a biological treatment of any organic matter in anaerobic condition, that is, without the presence of oxygen. You have micro-organisms that eat the organic matter and, in the process of degrading the organic matter, they emit methane, bio-gas, C02 and other gases. Through this process, they stabilize the organic matter, making it possible to be later applied to the soil. For compost, it’s the same process, but you need oxygen and there are other kinds of organisms that eat the organic matter. In one case you generate energy, while in the other you don’t. In both cases, however, you stabilize the organic matter.
You are an environmental engineer with previous experience on waste management – when did you start engaging with the circular economy concept?
When I joined Biovalor, I started applying a circular economy approach to traditional technologies, and I could see its real potential. If we continue like this, I am sure that these projects can be replicable and can be scaled to different sectors.
This new paradigm can help us to produce efficiently with respect for nature. In our country, we have people who only care about production without caring about nature, and people that think that only nature is important and we shouldn’t produce. Neither of these positions is good. We need to create employment, produce for our country, but need to find a way to have both aspects considered. And the circular economy is a way to do so.
Going more into the daily operations of BioValor, you have been working on different projects. Can you provide us an overview of your activities?
We work in four lines. The first one is generating information. When we started, we didn’t have information about where the waste was and what was its characterization – e.g. its nitrogen phosphates and caloric power. But if we need to detect opportunities, we need to know this. So – as a first pillar of the project – we started to work together with the private sector and universities to create this type of information.
It’s important to do this kind of work while being in direct contact with the representative organizations of different sectors. You can’t make this from a computer, without talking with the actors on the ground and understanding their problems. We are still working on it and – being a public project – transparency and public information are very important for us.
The second line is to change public policies. To do that, of course we need to understand our current policies and how they act as a barrier towards the promotion of this kind of technology. If we find the barriers, we can set in place more favourable policy conditions.
The third component is to finance pilot projects, and there are many reasons for doing this. One is to demonstrate that the technology actually works, while another is to help producers to share the risk of investing in new technologies.
In the end, we financed eight projects with different technologies, involving different sectors and that helped us a lot to understand what are the challenges around this kind of technology.
The fourth is – of course – to generate capacity. We started with four technologies, but now we can use part of the budget to promote new technologies and make an alliance with national organizations to promote the concept of circular economy.
When it comes to creating value from agro-industrial waste, what projects are you working on at Biovalor?
I will share information about two pilot projects.
One is focused on bio-gas, with anaerobic digestion in a dairy farm. Pablo Perez is the responsible person, and it’s a very nice, unusual and modern project for Uruguay. This project is called Rincón de Albano.
In Uruguay, the cows graze in open fields and spend most of their time in the open air. They only go to an indoor platform when they eat and where they are milked. In that space, there is a lot of waste produced.
Once you collect the manure, you wash it with water, it goes through a system that separates the water from the solid, and the water goes to a bio-digester. It’s a covered lagoon…it’s a cheaper technology than, say, a German bio-digester. The water stays for 40 days in the lagoon and during this project it generates biogas. The biogas is extracted and there is a lot of methane which we can use for energy. There is a motor generator, collected to the grid, which injects energy into the grid. This creates a closed loop on the farm.
Is this energy generated recognized by the authorities for usage in the public grid?
If you generate less than 150 Kw, the public energy provider company gives you the possibility to connect it to the grid and recognizes it at the same price that you pay for the energy. You can’t inject in the grid more than you consume, the balance of energy has to be zero. But differently from wind or solar, with biogas you can decide when to inject it in the grid; you can manage the energy.
The water from the lagoon can be sprayed on the pasture. By returning these nutrients to the soil, you can use less synthetic fertilizer.
And the second pilot project?
The second project is called Ontilcor. Here in Uruguay we have a lot of slaughterhouses and we are producers of high-quality meat, exported in all the world. When you work in a slaughterhouse you have a problem with ruminal content, that is what’s inside the stomach of the cows.
If you look at it, it’s a little bit of grass, and you can use it to make compost in very good conditions, but the volumes are very big. Slaughterhouses need to consume a lot of energy for steam, and through this project we are working to use the ruminal content for burning in the boiler. In this way, we replace the use of wood by using a waste stream.
In order for the ruminal content to go into the boiler, they needed to create a new design for the boiler—a new system for filling it—because it works very differently if it’s wood than if it’s grass. The designer of the boiler is a national company and they are learning by doing. It could be a really interesting solution for some of the slaughterhouses. It might not be the most circular of projects, but for our reality – Latin American reality – it’s a good opportunity to explore.
Coming to the cultural component, one of your roles is to raise awareness of the feasibility and benefits of circular economy practices. How is the cultural context in Uruguay in this respect?
We still have big barriers, as everywhere in the world. People commit to it when there is money in the middle. For example, last year a law to ban plastic bags was promoted. Now supermarkets can only give biodegradable bags and you have to pay for it. In the first four months of implementation, 80% of the population brought their own bags. They never expected these numbers. This shows that if you have to pay for something, you become disciplined.
On another level, household recycling is very low in Uruguay, less than 1% of materials are recycled. We don’t have the infrastructure needed and it’s a volunteer-based system. People can choose to bring their waste, but there are challenges in terms of infrastructure and public awareness.
If you look at education, we see that kids are more conscious than adults. And we see the youth movements around the world advocating for change. But we need to put this concept much more embedded into schools. At Biovalor, we have been working with the public, private and financial sectors. As a last step, we need to work on an academic level to generate projects and systems to put the circular economy concept more at the core of university, high-school, and technical education. We have a big challenge that we need to act upon.
What’s great to see about Biovalor is that it aims at proving and learning by doing. Any last thought you’d like to share?
I think it’s important to see that in Latin America we are still one step back from Europe, and this is a good thing. Here we still repair our stuff and put value into people repairing your shoes and dresses. This is part of the circular economy. For developing countries – I think in Africa and some countries in Asia must be similar – we need to recognize this as an opportunity to create employment and extend the life of products. And for that, of course, we need a better design of products. When it comes to electronics, for instance, we don’t have production here, it’s only imports. If you can repair them, you can have a big impact.
Repairing your stuff is cool and you can create new jobs for the unemployed. We need to generate capacity, and a first step we are doing is a diagnosis of the different companies that are repairing stuff to understand their barriers and possibilities. We first need to study these kinds of activities, because nobody has cared about them until now. Understanding the current situation and generating information, we can create the inputs to increase the value of these activities. This is one thing for Uruguay and South America compared to Europe. Maybe, in this case, to be one step behind is better.