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Recell saves cellulose from the incinerator and turns it into high-quality raw materials
By: Hidde Middelweerd
A notepad, printout or agenda… Everyone's desk has something made of paper made from cellulose. But the plant fibers can also be found in waste streams (such as those from the paper industry) and these are often landfilled or incinerated. A shame, says Recell. The company developed a technology to recover this cellulose and convert it into high-quality raw materials. And the company is now working hard on scaling up.

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The average tree consists of 40 to 50 percent cellulose. This makes it the most common polymer (a long chain of molecules) on earth. We mainly use it for paper production, but there are more applications. Cellulose-based raw materials are, for example, also processed in biocomposites or used as fiber reinforcement in building materials. And it is interesting for the chemical industry, because glucoses are made from cellulose in a biochemical process that are then used for the production of bioplastics.

“It is a great raw material: biodegradable and with a low CO2 impact,” says Erik Pijlman, director and founder of Recell. It is therefore a great shame that so much cellulose currently ends up in landfills or in ovens. How many? Pijlman estimates that 20 million tons of cellulose is lost every year in Europe alone.

Three streams of cellulose
Cellulose can roughly be divided into three streams: primary, secondary and tertiary. Trees are felled for primary cellulose, after which the paper and pulp industry processes the felled wood into paper products. The secondary flow is waste paper, which can be reused for paper production. The third (tertiary) stream is no longer taken back by the paper and pulp industry, because they can no longer use it. Think of labels on glass jars and plastic bottles, hamburger packaging and tissues. But old textiles also contain a lot of cellulose from the cotton fiber, just like the waste streams from sewage treatment plants.
“We can manage well with that third stream, which is normally lost,” says Pijlman. He founded Recell in 2017 and developed a method to reuse this cellulose. Subsidiary Cellvation is able to isolate and recover cellulose in waste streams, using sieving and cleaning techniques. Recell then 'cuts' the cellulose (a polymer) into the building blocks it consists of (monomers). For example, it produces high-quality glucose molecules (read: sugars), a semi-finished product from which the chemical industry makes bioplastics. The chemical industry normally uses agricultural crops for this purpose, but this is avoided in this way.

Lower environmental impact, lower costs
Recell's cellulose can also be used as a fiber product in the construction and infrastructure sector. For example, by incorporating it into concrete asphalt, which reduces the environmental impact of the material. And the costs and CO2 footprint of biocomposites decrease when Recell's cellulose is incorporated. Subsidiary Cellvation is currently building a commercial production line in Utrecht to serve the construction industry at scale. “We are already competitive as a fiber product for the construction sector,” says Pijlman.

The chemical industry is not there yet. But once Recell reaches a certain scale, it will also be able to compete there, says Pijlman. And it will eventually reach that scale, he expects: “The chemical industry must become more sustainable and we offer an interesting solution for this. Our product is circular, requires no land use and hardly any water, has a low energy demand and because we recover it from waste streams, it has a negative CO2 impact. It also never competes with food production. All the ingredients for scaling up are present.”
So many advantages on the production side. But Recell can also be an interesting partner for companies that produce waste streams with cellulose. After all, part of their waste stream will demonstrably be given a sustainable reuse if Recell starts working with it. And that, in addition to a good story, also results in CO2 certificates.
Demonstration factory in Groningen
Recell recently opened a demonstration plant at a sewage treatment plant in Leek (Groningen). It is capable of producing 100 tons of glucose molecules for the chemical industry every year. “There we investigate, among other things, how we can optimize the production of glucose from various waste streams,” says Pijlman. “And we are of course taking a serious step towards commercialization.”

Because that is ultimately Recell's goal. In 2025, the company expects to open a factory with a capacity of 50,000 tons. But the potential is many times greater, concludes Pijlman: “We hope to convert the 20 million tons of cellulose that is lost every year in Europe into green raw materials in the future. And that is a serious ambition, not a dream.”

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