One of the goals proposed by the Director General of Planning and Economic Development of the Government of Aragon, Miguel Luis Lapeña, is for Aragon to become a European benchmark in circular economy in the coming years.
This is what he says in an interview in which he reviews the main milestones of the Aragón Circular strategy of the regional government. In his three-year journey, Lapeña highlights the consensus generated in the Parliament, the development of projects it has promoted and the adhesion of companies to the plan. A path that he hopes will serve to consolidate the territory in this new productive paradigm.
Almost three years ago Aragón Circular was born, what did it mean to take that step?
It was born, specifically, on January 30, 2020; now it is going to be three years. It was done from the perspective of promoting the circular economy in a transversal way throughout the business system of Aragon. It is a project led by that government pact, of that green, digital and social Aragon, and in which the Minister of Economy –Marta Gastón– had at that time that vision of promotion. And in that vision of the Minister, no one was going to tell us that two months later we would live through the greatest pandemic of this century and that, once we recovered, we also entered, unfortunately, on February 24, in that unjust war between Ukraine and Russia.
But during this period we have carried out very important projects related to training and inviting Aragonese companies to adhere to the institutional declaration of Aragon Circular, which includes 16 points aligned with the European declaration. And with the R&D&I aid projects, with the call for 2021, 2022. We are already working to launch the third call in February, which has a very important novelty, we have worked from the Government of Aragon with the aim of obtaining ERDF funds, which will mean going from 4 million euros, with a significant effort of the Government in its own resources, to a call for 8 million euros for the years 2023, 2024 and 2025. This will allow us to attract many more companies to these projects, both for research and experimentation in circular economy. That is the key, visibility, recognition and R&D grants in which, in the last call, 36 companies participated with 16 million euros of investment and the creation of 49 highly qualified and talented jobs.
We are also pleased that, in the bases of the PERTE of circular economy of the Ministry of Ecological Transition, they have included the philosophy of this line of R&D of the Government of Aragon, which is the cooperation between companies or with technological institutes, either public, which in Aragon we have references, or private.
Now, almost three years later, what conclusions can be drawn from this journey?
The conclusions are positive and important because from a trend, a fashion, we could say, we have had the leadership capacity in Aragon to turn it into a strategic pillar. And we do not say it ourselves, we are the Government, but it is also said by the National Institute of Public Administration itself, which has taken Aragon as the first autonomous community of reference in the transversal promotion of the circular economy and has put it in its knowledge bank.
But the most important conclusion is that it was born from the business sphere, from the social sphere; it is to present in February 2020 Aragón Circular in the Parliament and that all the political groups supported this initiative. And all the jobs we have created, the investments, the talent, the design and innovation; the training, with those two expert courses of the School of Industrial Organization (EOI) and those projects that every 15 days or once a month we approve, very interesting and innovative, with concepts such as pyrolysis or eco-design, which are key. And they are not only in the capital of Aragon, which is also the case, but all over the territory. Therefore, we are talking about the structuring, territory, employment, investment and Aragon as a benchmark in circular economy.
Could we say that Aragon is on the right track in this area then?
We are on the right track. On November 23 we held a conference with an international vision with the Club of Rome, one of the most prestigious clubs at international level in the reflection on sustainability, but very oriented to the circular economy. We held workshops on industry, agri-food, a key sector in Aragon, and telecommunications and services, and we already have the conclusions.
These conclusions should guide us for this second Aragon Circular strategy. That is to say, it was born in 2020, things were done, and very important ones, in the period of the pandemic, and now those conclusions are adapted to that strategy, because it is a totally living strategy, where changes are very fast, both at European and national level.
We also have that opportunity with the PERTE, which is very important, with 492 million euros, with a first call for many companies and a second call for 300 million euros and aligned to very specific sectors, such as textiles and plastics.
Is Aragon, therefore, a pioneer in Spain and Europe?
In Aragon we have a very important project, and we should be grateful for the leadership of the Business and Innovation Center (CEEI Aragon). In these 30 years that made last year there have been 325 companies and 80% of those entering the CEEI are consolidated, mainly startups in many sectors. In this last stage that is leading its managing director, Celia García, is specializing in European projects. We are part of the European Resource project, we are seven partners and cooperation is key. It is a project within Horizon Europe whose main objective is to leverage 20 million euros in private financing from all over Europe in three years. Twelve companies are participating so far; one of them is positioning itself very well, because it has already had two investors, practically from the ‘Champions’ league, who are already talking to it. And, once we have achieved this milestone, Aragon will become the first circular region in the entire European community and it will be a model to be extrapolated to other regions.
We are working on another project, which began on October 24, in which we are aligning the other major project that we are carrying out in the Department of Economy, which is the Aragonese Plan to Promote the Social Economy, with the circular economy. It is very much aligned with the rural area, with the service cooperative and also with those small agricultural and livestock producers who, within their production and commercial processes, are promoting the circular economy. Therefore, we have a very important opportunity, not so much with the Next Generation, which would come from this PERTE, but also from all these European projects and this specialization that the CEEI is having in these lines of aid, which are there and that we have to have the capacity to know how to take advantage of.
Precisely, how is the business fabric responding?
It is responding in three lines; the first one in which we have 145 companies adhered to the institutional declaration of Aragón Circular. Of those 145, 72 will receive the Aragon Circular seal awards on the 31st of next year in the Crown Hall. In the first call, 101 companies from 17 different economic sectors, many of them strategic in Aragon, presented themselves to us. 72 have obtained the seal and, of these, four are local administrations. They are very complex reports, very hard work, and an effort has been made both by them and by the evaluation team.
From there, we are working on workshops. For example, on February 2 we are holding a conference at the CEEI for those companies that did not obtain the seal and had the merits to do so, but did not prepare the report properly. It will consist of a workshop to help them prepare the report for the second call. This second call will be published in the Official Gazette of Aragon (BOA) on February 3. There will be two months to apply.
I understand that the end of this month and the beginning of February are being important for the strategy…
Very important because this month, first, we are celebrating three years of Aragon Circular with the recognition of 72 companies and local administrations. It is important because we are going to launch the third line of aid in R&D in circular economy with 8 million euros for the period 2023-2025. And it is important because we are already working with the EOI to launch the third call for the expert course in circular economy, which is taught in blended mode in the CEEI of Teruel. We have specialized Teruel as the capital of circular economy training in Aragon.
But it is also important because we are working side by side with the different general directorates of this department in attracting Aragonese companies that want to take the step to the circular economy.
The paradigm shift from the linear economy to the circular economy is not trivial; does society really understand what it means? are we aware of what it implies?
It is a long and difficult process, and that is the role of Aragón Circular, to be that oil film that permeates the Community; I believe that companies are very aware of it. But it is a very interesting question, the challenge of society. And there are two key elements on which we are working. The European Commission guidelines are three; the first one, the circular economy in the textile sector, in the construction sector and empowering the consumer in the values of the circular economy. Fortunately, consumers are becoming more and more aware of the concept of sustainability, they have more information and they are already buying based on values. This is a key element. And that is where we are working with the Directorate General for Consumer Affairs, through the Consumer Affairs classroom, making training pills to raise awareness of the circular economy.
And the other aspect is the educational field, not so much in the university, where we are working with the formal training of the University of Zaragoza and, mainly, of the Chair of Circular Engineering, but in schools. We have already closed to go two mornings to two schools in Zaragoza that are already working with the values of climate change, sustainability and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and explain to them what the circular economy is. Once we do this, we will do the same with two Vocational Training centers; one, the San Blas center in Teruel, which is already a reference in circular economy, and another one that we have to define. The role of young people and the role of primary and secondary education is fundamental so that they also transfer these values of circularity to their homes and families.
Regenerate, redesign, reuse, use and recycle, is that right?
That’s right. And then there is a sixth milestone, which is another concept that is in the conclusions of the November 23rd conference and that the Government of Aragon is also promoting, which is the concept of repairing. We must always avoid generating waste and extend the useful life of the product. Therefore, repair is fundamental, but it has to be aligned with that line of aid which is eco-design.
In Aragon, which project or projects are attracting the most attention?
We have received many projects; we are working on them with the total discretion that characterizes this company. Others are already public. Projects such as Thermowaste, in Ariño, in the area of the old Samca mines, which have been recovered to be able to carry out a project, to put an end to landfills in the world. Through a process which is superior to pyrolysis, all that waste from our homes, converting it into a raw material and also into energy sources.
If we go to another very important sector in the Community, such as the agri-food sector, specifically, the pork sector, through the membrane that covers the pig’s intestine, we can produce heparin. It is a project already with autonomic interest, concretely, in Fraga, through a very important Aragonese group, which is Grupo Costa, and a pharmaceutical company, Rovi. With heparin we are making a very big leap in the pharmaceutical sector. We are talking about qualified jobs and a lot of laboratory jobs as well.
In Zaragoza, through pyrolysis, to generate raw material from any plastic bottle that we throw into the container. Or the Confecciones Oroel project, for clothing for the protection sector, such as firefighters’ suits, which consists of recovering them, carrying out a process through eco-design and once again generating yarn to incorporate it into their production processes. We have many very talented processes, most of them accompanied by the technological institutes of Aragon. And what we are very proud of is that these projects have come out of this line of R&D of circular economy of the Government of Aragon.
Now there is a PERTE of 492 million euros, is it enough for this change?
We have to look at it. I think that the Next Generation is a very important opportunity for this country and a key to move from the linear economy model, which has led us where it has led us, to a circular economy model. Of the different PERTEs that are coming to Spain, one of them would be the circular economy. It was approved on March 8 by the Council of Ministers and is endowed with 492 million euros. On December 7, the first call for applications was published in the Official State Gazette for 192 million euros. We are accompanying several Aragonese companies on this journey with very interesting projects which are compatible with our call for R&D aid. And, when this call comes to an end -he concluded this Monday-, there are still 300 million Euros to be developed. Of these 300 million, they are going to launch a call for specific sectors, mainly the textile and plastics sectors.
The Ministry is also working, and I believe that Aragon can do very well, in the PERTE of decarbonization. It is another opportunity to be able to work and make progress in moving from this linear model to the circular one.
Therefore, I believe that the PERTE are important opportunities; in this case, we are working very closely with the circular economy and we are seeing that Aragonese companies, with their leadership, are taking advantage of it. Now we have to see how this call ends and, afterwards, if it is covered.
Three years have passed since 2020. In another three years, in 2026, what would be desirable with respect to the Aragon Circular strategy? What would be the most important points to address?
As the Government of Aragon, it would be to continue in this line but, above all, to consolidate Aragon as a circular region within the 27 countries that make up, so far, the European Union. And, from there, to make it a strategic pillar and, at the same time, a cross-cutting one. Aragon has to be a circular region and I believe we are on the right track; a region where there is talent, which is the key to circular economy, a region where there are entrepreneurship and employment projects, and where we are a benchmark at European level. And, always, to go hand in hand with companies, because Aragón Circular, without companies, would not be what it has been so far.