5 minutes with… Tom Rommens, coordinator, H2020 CIRCUSOL, Belgium

5 minutes with… Tom Rommens, coordinator, H2020 CIRCUSOL, Belgium

October 8, 2019
Lloyd Fuller

Solar technologies are clearly sustainable in life, but what about in death? With 60 million tons of PV waste predicted by 2050, not only do we need the recycling capacity to process this mountain of scrap but products need to be designed more with sustainability in mind. E-Waste World Conference & Expo speaker Tom Rommens, project coordinator of CIRCUSOL, discusses why the sector needs to think more circular

How did you end up in the industry?
I joined VITO, the Research and Technology Organization (RTO), in March 2019. At VITO, we work on several projects related to waste management and circular economy in general. Since 1 September 2019, I have been coordinating the CIRCUSOL project, which deals specifically with business models for the recycling and re-use of PV installations and electric vehicle batteries. Before that, I worked for Saint-Gobain Gyproc, a plasterboard manufacturer. I was responsible for sustainable development and regulatory affairs, and as such involved in discussions related to sustainability of construction materials and buildings, energy efficiency, LCA methodology and LCA standards, product standards and CE marking, recycling etc. I graduated in 2002 as a Master in Bioscience Engineering and obtained a PhD in Physical Geography in 2006 (at the Catholic University of Leuven). After that, I started my career in as an environmental consultant, dealing with soil remediation, environmental impact assessments, and waste management studies.

What does VITO do?
VITO is an independent Belgian RTO in the area of clean-tech and sustainable development. Our goal is to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world. More in particular, our research team at VITO, is focusing on circular business innovation strategies, waste and materials management policies, LCA and datafication. As a project manager, I am responsible for projects in the field of life-cycle analysis, waste policies and circular business models.

In CIRCUSOL, we want to explore possibilities to achieve higher resource efficiency in the solar power industry, and as such support a truly sustainable transition towards a low-carbon renewable energy future

Could you tell us more about CIRCUSOL?
CIRCUSOL stands for ‘Circular Business Models for the Solar Power Industry’. It is an Innovation Action project funded by the Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission. It brings together 15 partners from seven European countries to develop and demonstrate business solutions for circular economy in the solar power sector. CIRCUSOL started in June 2018 and will run for four years. In CIRCUSOL, we want to explore possibilities to achieve higher resource efficiency in the solar power industry, and as such support a truly sustainable transition towards a low-carbon renewable energy future. We know that the solar power market is rapidly growing. We also know that, as a result, the volume of discarded products entering the waste stream will grow. CIRCUSOL wants to formalize the repair/refurbish and re-use value chains in the PV industry and propose circular business models, based on a product-service system (PSS).

The issue of PV waste is starting to get some attention. Do you think it’s about time?
The international renewable energy association estimates that, by 2030, up to eight million tons of PV will be discarded as ‘waste’, and two million old batteries will be removed from electric vehicles. Those are huge volumes. For the end user, the problem might be less visible than, say plastic pollution which gets a lot of headlines, and in Europe, there is also a legal framework for extended producer responsibility aiming at e-waste collection and recycling. However, the question is whether recycling is really the only option? Maybe we could obtain a ‘triple-win’ for the end-user, the sector and the environment, if we would make a shift towards product-service models. We think that in the EU, 13GW of solar power could be provided by second-life PV, and 25GWh storage capacity for renewable energy could be provided by second-life batteries.

The challenge is not in the way we treat e-waste, the biggest challenge – in the long term – is in the way we produce and put electronic products onto the market, without thinking of the end-of-life of these products

From where you sit, what do you regard as the sector’s biggest challenges?
The challenge is not in the way we treat e-waste, the biggest challenge – in the long term – is in the way we produce and put electronic products onto the market, without thinking of the end-of-life of these products. The traditional take-make-waste paradigm in our economy today is simply not sustainable. Moreover, evolving towards a circular economy is not just a question of waste collection and recycling rates. What we need is different business models, moving from ownership to stewardship, for example. Great gains in resource efficiency could be made, if businesses would shift from a system where they are merely manufacturing and selling products, to a system where they sell products as a services. Circular PSS models would incentivize producers to really ‘design for circularity’, it would foster transparency and collaboration within value chains and support re-use, refurbish and remanufacturing-paths.

Is e-waste legislation tough enough?
Waste legislation only deals with the symptoms of the waste disease. A more holistic policy framework is needed if we also want to remediate the causes of the issue.

Where do you predict the future of e-waste is heading?
We will find ways to reduce the material loss due to inefficient treatment of e-waste. We don’t have a choice – it is just a necessity.

I’m happy to see that the focus is no longer on waste treatment and recycling but also on circular economy. The diversity of the topics that are going to be discussed in the different sessions shows that the sector is thinking out of the box to find solutions

You will be attending E-Waste World Conference & Expo as a speaker on the panel discussion hosted by Nancy Gillis from the Green Electronics Council. What are your thoughts on the conference?
I’m happy to see that the focus is no longer on waste treatment and recycling but also on circular economy. The diversity of the topics that are going to be discussed in the different sessions shows that the sector is thinking out of the box to find solutions. We’re not only looking at electronics and e-waste, but also diving into bio-based materials, biodegradable electronics, ecodesign, digitization, etc. Several value chains are meeting each other and exchanging ideas. I hope that people will understand that we will not solve the e-waste problem by just looking for new technologies for waste treatment and recycling. We will also need new product design, and new business models, which will completely change the way value chains work.

Tom Rommens will be part of a panel discussion entitled ‘Sustainable photovoltaic systems (PV modules and inverters)’ at E-Waste World Conference & Expo. The conference will take place from Thursday 14 November to Friday 15 November at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Germany. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

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