The answer to cleaning up contaminated industrial sites in Europe could lie in the microbes that are already there.
By JACK MCGOVAN
Trees and other vegetation grow on the site of a former soap factory in northwestern France.
While the greenery suggests all is well in the Ploufragan commune near the Brittany coast, the truth is that a plant for making cleaning products has left a mess. The surrounding soil is saturated with toxic hydrocarbons – byproducts of the soap production.
Tackling such environmental damage is a priority for Dr Thomas Reichenauer under a research project that has received EU funding to investigate how microbes can be used to break down contaminants in soil and groundwater. The problem is pressing because poisonous substances in the soil can seep into plants, which may then get eaten by animals, and can leak into groundwater, according to Reichenauer, senior scientist at the Austrian Institute of Technology in Vienna.
‘For these contaminants we are working on, it will take decades – or hundreds of years – until nature breaks them down completely,’ he said.
The EU has an estimated 2.8 million contaminated sites ranging from old industrial zones to landfills. Clean-up efforts vary across Member States, with Germany and the Netherlands leading the way.
The groundwater dimension is all the more acute because of worsening climate change, which threatens to cause increasingly severe droughts. So even as groundwater becomes a more precious resource, less may be available to drink if it contains industrial pollutants.
Reichenauer coordinates a project called MIBIREM that has received EU funding to speed up the process of decontaminating soil and groundwater by learning more about their microbiome – the collection of microorganisms in a particular environment.
The researchers are trying to figure out how microbes interact to break down three particular contaminants: cyanides, hexachlorocyclohexane and petroleum hydrocarbons.
Petroleum hydrocarbons are very common. While cyanides and hexachlorocyclohexane are less prevalent, they’re toxic enough to warrant developing technology for breaking them down.
The initiative began in October 2022 and runs until end-March 2027.
The process by which microbes can be stimulated to ramp up their consumption of contaminants is called bioremediation.
In the case of cyanides, for example, glucose could be added to the soil, according to Reichenauer, who originally trained as a geneticist and plant physiologist.
‘Bioremediation is eco-friendly as we don’t have to introduce any toxic or dangerous chemicals,’ he said.
There are other ways of removing pollutants from soil.
Plants have been studied as a potential method for removing heavy metals. But few commercial ventures exist because the removal process – another form of bioremediation – is slow.
Chemical remediation, while quicker, offers only a partial solution because it typically removes toxic substances by adding fewer from the outset.
MIBIREM will focus entirely on using microbes because they have the potential to be the fastest and most eco-friendly option, according to Reichenauer.
The project ultimately wants to come up with bioremediation tools for different industrial spots across Europe. In some cases, researchers hope to identify particularly useful microbes and store them for later use.
MIBIREM is focused on developing technologies that can be used on-site, sparing itself the hassle of excavating soil and transporting it. Because the project targets mainly industrial spots, which are often located in urban areas, treating soil in the original place is sometimes the only option.
In the case of the factory site in Ploufragan, where soap was produced for almost half a century until the mid-1990s, this would mean being able to treat the area without digging up the vegetation that has grown there since the buildings were demolished in 2017.
‘If you can show that it works in the fields, then there is a good chance that it can be commercially applied later on,’ said Reichenauer.
The global market for microbial bioremediation was valued at around €42 million in 2021. It’s projected to grow to about €85 million by the end of the decade.
Reichenauer sought to soothe any concerns that people might have about altering the microbiome of soil to remove contaminants, saying such changes are neither negative nor positive and occur in line with environmental influences regardless of any human intervention.
MIBIREM could help the EU meet targets set under a mission called “A Soil Deal for Europe”, which seeks a transition towards healthy soils by 2030.
The use of microbes for bioremediation has also been the focus of an EU-funded project called GREENER, which is due to finish this August after four and a half years.
It has included pilot projects in Belgium, Ireland, Spain and China.
In the Spanish city of Toledo, for example, soil from a former machinery park was excavated and treated on-site, where microbes were used to remove hydrocarbons. For a wetland site in Belgium, microbes enabled the removal of heavy metals from the groundwater without extracting it.
‘We are working with clients that have a contamination problem and assisting companies that are performing remediation of the site,’ said Rocío Barros, the project coordinator. ‘Better understanding the microbiome in the soil will be very important for improving technologies that address soil pollution.’
GREENER went beyond MIBIREM in one respect: trying to create energy during the bioremediation process.
By coupling energy generation with soil and wastewater cleaning, GREENER sought to help diversify the EU’s power sources while removing pollutants from the environment.
The energy component involves the use of microbial fuel cells. As microbes break down organic molecules like hydrocarbons, chemical energy is converted into usable electrical energy.
Results on this front have been less than promising when it comes to ramping up such activity, according to Barros, who heads an environment, sustainability and toxicology research group at the University of Burgos in Spain.
‘Not all of the microbial fuel cells have reached a good enough performance for scaling up,’ she said.
This aspect of the project highlights the risks involved in research and development and, by extension, the importance of funding sources including the EU.
Some of the microbial fuel cells being used to treat water have shown potential.
‘The use of the fuel cells with wetlands has been very good,’ said Barros.
Hoping that microbial fuel cells can be further advanced, she is now seeking to develop a film that could be added to them to improve electricity generation.
Research in this article was funded by the EU.
EU MISSION: A SOIL DEAL FOR EUROPE
“A Soil Deal for Europe” seeks to reduce pollution in the ground and protect the numerous species that live in it. Today, an estimated 60-70% of EU soils are unhealthy.
The Mission reflects soil’s role as a foundation for food production, fresh water, biodiversity and cultural heritage. 100 test sites, including on individual farms, will spearhead the Mission’s aim to transition to healthier soils by 2030.
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
G20 summit must formulate plan for Global South climate change threat
The G20 summit in India must have a “concrete plan” for “scaled-up” green financing for the Global South as a critical strategy to combat climate change, affirms the founder of one of the world’s largest independent financial advisory, asset management and fintech organizations.
The comments from deVere Group’s Nigel Green comes as leaders of the Group of 20 top industrialised and developing countries will gather this weekend in New Delhi for a summit that will celebrate the end of India’s 12-month G20 presidency.
He says: Climate change is no longer a distant threat; it is a present reality. Rising global temperatures, extreme weather events, melting ice caps, and sea-level rise are already affecting communities, ecosystems, and economies worldwide.
“The Global South, comprising developing nations with limited resources, bears a disproportionate burden in this climate crisis, despite contributing minimally to greenhouse gas emissions.
“As such, the leader of the G20 – the richest countries in the world – must use the summit starting in India this week to formulate a concrete plan for scaled-up green financing to help the Global South tackle the biggest issue of our time.
“A failure to do this could, ultimately, have catastrophic consequences for our planet and its communities.”
Green financing encompasses a range of mechanisms designed to support sustainable, environmentally friendly projects that mitigate climate change and enhance resilience.
These include investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, climate adaptation, sustainable agriculture, and conservation efforts.
“One of the major challenges faced by the Global South is access to financial resources needed for climate action. Developing nations often lack the financial capacity to invest in green projects without incurring significant debt,” says the deVere CEO.
“The G20 summit must play a pivotal role in bridging this financial gap by prioritising green financing and creating mechanisms to make it more accessible.”
G20 countries, being the largest economies in the world, must also “commit to increasing in a considerable way their financial contributions to international climate finance mechanisms. These funds are essential for providing support to developing nations in their efforts to mitigate emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” he notes.
Nigel Green goes on to add that the G20 summit should also serve as a platform for fostering collaboration between developed and developing nations.
This collaboration can take various forms, including knowledge sharing, technology transfer, and capacity building.
In addition, to scale up climate action, it is crucial to engage the private sector. G20 countries can promote public-private partnerships and initiatives that attract private sector investment in green projects.
“This can be achieved through incentives, guarantees, or risk-sharing mechanisms that make investments in sustainability more appealing to businesses.”
Innovation in financial instruments, such as green bonds and climate insurance, can unlock alternative funding sources for climate projects in developing nations.
The deVere CEO says: “The G20 summit must urgently encourage the development and adoption of such instruments to diversify funding options.”
The G20 summit in India presents a crucial opportunity to prioritize green financing for the Global South as a key strategy to combat climate change.
This summit can be a turning point in the global fight against climate change, demonstrating that unity, innovation, and commitment can drive transformative change toward a sustainable future for all.
“The urgency of climate action cannot be overstated, and the global community must act decisively.
“By committing to green financing, promoting collaboration, and bridging the financial gap, the G20 can lead the way in ensuring that all nations, particularly those in the Global South, have the resources and support they need to address the climate crisis effectively,” concludes Nigel Green.
To tackle wildfires, researchers in Europe team up with frontline forces
The EU is seeking to limit growing threats from blazes through the use of satellites, artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles.
By JACK MCGOVAN
Picture the following scene on the French island of Corsica: a local fire service uses a special surveillance camera to detect smoke in the area, quickly declare the outbreak of a blaze and mobilise a targeted response.
No, the action in the Biguglia municipality on Corsica’s northeastern coast wasn’t one of the many wildfire emergencies in Europe in 2023. Rather, it was a demonstration in October 2022 under an EU-funded research project to help regions in Europe counter threats from wildfires.
The Biguglia exercise used a smoke bomb to simulate the start of a fire and an extensive data network to trigger the rapid-reaction steps. It involved a service that has 1 300 firefighters who protect a population in this part of Corsica – the Mediterranean’s fourth-biggest island – that grows to around 400 000 in summer.
‘This first demonstration on Corsica was very positive,’ said Michael Pelissier, a firefighter who participated in the test.
As part of the EU project, called SAFERS, a similar firefighting exercise took place in the Piedmont region of Italy in February 2023 and two more trials are planned in Greece and Spain toward the end of this year.
‘After the next two demonstrations, we would like to push the management system forward in Europe and also beyond,’ said Claudio Rossi, who coordinates the project and is a senior researcher at an Italian research and innovation centre called the Links Foundation in the city of Turin.
With the help of EU funding, Europe’s research community is joining forces with firefighters to prevent fires from spreading or from happening at all. SAFERS is one of several EU projects to combine resources and know-how for tackling wildfires on the continent.
The focus of SAFERS is primarily on the use of satellites and artificial intelligence, or AI, to provide information that could help save lives and contain environmental damage.
‘The orchestrated utilisation of AI-powered solutions can increase resilience to forest fires,’ Rossi said.
Running for three and a half years through March 2024, the project features weather and hazard maps, fire-detection techniques, input from the general public and other tools to help local authorities prepare.
The ultimate goal is to build on the demonstrations in France, Greece, Italy and Spain and develop a comprehensive wildfire-control system for use around Europe.
By combining satellite images and other data, the system is intended to give first responders, decision-makers and ordinary people a clearer view of what’s happening and to facilitate the best responses.
Earth-observation data from the EU’s Copernicus programme is the primary source of information. This would be combined with data collected from smoke detectors, mobile applications, social media and forecast models.
A stark reminder that wildfires pose a growing threat in Europe came from news images in July 2023 of tourists fleeing flames on the Greek island of Rhodes and blazes spreading near the Sicilian city of Palermo.
A month later, attention turned to Spain and Portugal where blazes destroyed more than 16 300 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of villages and tourist accommodations.
The Biguglia municipality on Corsica was chosen as a SAFERS demonstration site in part because of a major fire there in 2017.
‘These last years we have noticed that, notably because of global warming, the summer season has a tendency to expand,’ said Pelissier, the firefighter. ‘So we are increasingly threatened by forest fires.’
The EU, which recently doubled its firefighting fleet of aircraft, has deployed more than 10 planes, 500 firefighters and 100 vehicles to help control and quell wildfires in Greece alone during the summer of 2023.
Over the past two months, the EU has also mobilised such support for Cyprus and – outside Europe – Tunisia. The moves were closely coordinated with national authorities.
Another EU-funded project – TREEADS – plans to feature drones, high-altitude balloons and satellites in a Europe-wide protection system.
‘We can’t only invest in fire trucks, helicopters or planes – we need to train our communities before the fires happen,’ said Kemal Sarp Arsava, who coordinates the project.
Arsava is a senior research scientist at Norway-based RISE Fire Research, which specialises in fire safety.
TREEADS aims to establish a comprehensive fire-management platform covering all three stages of wildfires – before, during and after a blaze breaks out.
Arsava is a native of Turkey who has also worked and studied in the US.
While in the US in late 2019, he was reminded of the international dimension of the wildfires threat by noticing the effect of Australia’s major outbreak of bushfires at the time.
Based then in the state of New Hampshire, Arsava said the blazes caused a slight haze in North America while primarily hurting air quality in South America.
‘The smoke from all of the wildfires in Australia basically crossed the Pacific Ocean and even changed the colour of the sky in America,’ he said.
Drones and balloons
TREEADS began in December 2021 and is due to run until end-May 2025.
The initiative brings together research institutes and companies from 14 European countries and Taiwan.
Besides Norway and Taiwan, the participants are from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Spain and Sweden.
The team of researchers is developing new technologies that’ll be tested in eight countries represented in the project.
One plan is to use drones and high-altitude balloons to detect blazes early, collect data for fire crews and even aid their actions by dropping fire-suppressant materials.
A four-layer approach is foreseen: low-altitude drones to locate fire hotspots; mid-altitude drones to drop fire suppressants; high-altitude balloons to provide a broader view; and satellites for the whole picture.
The trials are due to start early next year.
The project is also testing a virtual-reality headset to train firefighters who aren’t typically assigned to dealing with wildfires. That means teaching city firefighters to deal with blazes in different terrains should the need arise.
In total, more than 26 technologies including for fire protection and suppression will be enhanced, developed and verified in TREEADS.
‘These new technologies will make it easier to fight wildfires in the future,’ said Arsava.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
Clothing manufacturers aim to get fashionable with greener practices
Clothes made from recycled textiles are emerging in Europe, highlighting new business opportunities that also reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.
By OFIA STRODT
Two textile plants in southern Finland point to the future of the industry.
At the sites in Espoo and Valkeakoski, pre-treated textile waste is turned into a cellulosic fibre that looks and feels like cotton.
In with the old
The activity is part of a research initiative called the New Cotton Project that received EU funding to help green the fashion business by recycling discarded textiles into new clothes. The three-year initiative is being extended by six months to March 2024 and builds on the notion of a “circular economy” in which goods get repaired, reused and recycled.
‘We want to show that a circular economy for textiles is possible in Europe,’ said Paula Sarsama, who coordinates New Cotton Project and is programme manager at Infinited Fiber Company in Espoo. The project uses the company’s recycling technology.
Discarded clothing is an environmental menace in Europe and globally.
Much of the waste is dumped into landfills in poorer parts of the world, discharging methane into the air and chemicals into the soil and groundwater. An estimated 5.8 million tonnes of textiles, or about 11 kilogrammes per person, are thrown away annually in the EU.
The EU is one of the world’s largest importers of clothing, with such shipments worth €80 billion in 2019.
While the EU gets most of its textiles from abroad, it also produces them in countries including Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Italy accounts for more than 40% of EU apparel production. Furthermore, European exports of discarded clothing have tripled in the past two decades.
The textile sector in Europe employs more than 1.5 million people and, with global textiles production predicted to rise 63% by 2030 from 2022, the waste would only increase without action.
The European clothing industry is seeking to break the cycle by moving towards more sustainable production and consumption. The shifts promise to open new business opportunities while aiding the environment.
Under New Cotton Project, the used textiles were obtained by a Dutch company named Frankenhuis that collects and organises them and is a partner in the initiative.
At Infinited Fiber, Sarsama and her colleagues work with numerous textile collectors and sorters. Most are located in northern Europe – an effort to keep transport routes, costs and emissions to a minimum.
‘In the future we hope to see textile circularity hubs, sourcing textiles locally and having different recycling and circular solutions on site,’ said Sarsama.
After being broken down, the waste is revived as the fibre that looks and feels like cotton and is named “Infinna”.
Hoodie and sweatpants
Actually making the clothes is the next step in the whole process.
German athletic apparel and footwear maker adidas and companies belonging to Swedish fashion retailer H&M are among the businesses that will use the Infinna fibre to design, manufacture and sell their own items.
A milestone for New Cotton Project was getting the first garments made from textile waste into the marketplace in 2022, according to Sarsama.
The retailers’ collections were limited product lines sold on the online market. Sarsama said this ensured a larger geographical spread than would have been the case from selling the items in a single European shop, however large.
The garments included an “adidas by Stella McCartney” set with a hoodie and sweatpants and an H&M denim jacket and pair of trousers.
All parts of the textile production chain – from initial design through to the shop floor – are represented in the project. The aim is to demonstrate that creating new clothing from cotton-rich textile waste can be commercially viable.
Collection is key
A key component in the transition to a circular economy is the organised collecting and sorting of textile waste.
Currently, less than 1% of materials used to produce new clothing comes from recycled textiles. As of 2025, EU law will require all 27 Member States to put in place a waste-collection system for household textiles and to comply with minimum recycling goals.
A big challenge is getting different parts of the sector to align on specifications, according to Sarsama.
For example, at the start of New Cotton Project, the partners planning new collections had some specifications for required materials that were unclear to the collecting entities. This prompted the two segments to improve their exchange of information.
Collaboration in the sector got a boost with the launch in early 2023 of the ECOSYSTEX platform. Bringing together 23 EU-funded initiatives – including New Cotton Project – that focus on textile sustainability, ECOSYSTEX aims to deepen cooperation among the partners.
Sorting it out
Another European project that is part of the platform has received EU funding to demonstrate how a system to transform household textile waste into a feedstock for new products could work.
Called T-REX – short for Textile Recycling Excellence – the initiative began last year and is due to run through May 2025. The focus is on grouping the waste. That’s because, to be repurposed on a large scale, discarded garments first need to be sorted according to their material.
‘A problem for the sorters is that items are made from different materials,’ said Elizabeth Martin, T-REX’s coordinator and a manager at adidas. ‘If we can harmonise the quality criteria for sorting practices, we can improve the scale-up as well.’
On top of this hurdle comes an unknown: how consumers will become part of the process, as they’ll be the ones discarding old garments.
Bringing this segment into the mix will require simpler textile waste-disposal options. That in turn will mean changes in labelling as well as in production.
‘The ways in which consumers are going to dispose of their household textile waste is going to play a role because this is going to affect the sorting process that follows,’ said Martin.
In a 2022 Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, the European Commission proposed to establish an EU “Digital Product Passport” – an electronic record that would be required by 2030 to encourage customers to make more educated choices in the first place.
Basic data such as a garment’s composition, sourcing, toxicity, maintenance options and disassembly possibilities would aid companies in adopting circular models.
The hope in Europe is that the knowledge generated through research initiatives like New Cotton Project and T-REX will also contribute to improving practices globally.
For any substantial change in the textile sector, international collaboration is needed.
‘Europe is currently at the forefront of this push for change, but these problems need to be solved at a global level,’ said Sarsama.
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.
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