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Cement Co-Processing for a Circular Industry – EURACTIV

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CEMBUREAU – The European Cement Association
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From de-commissioned wind blades to end-of-life tyres and agricultural waste, co-processing offers a circular solution to Europe’s waste problem – whilst reducing the cement sector’s CO2 emissions. Its potential should be fully recognised by policymakers, argues Koen Coppenholle, CEO of CEMBUREAU.
CEMBUREAU, the European Cement Association, is determined to make a robust contribution to the European Green Deal by taking action on a wide range of topics, from climate change to biodiversity and air quality. CEMBUREAU’s Carbon Neutrality Roadmap sets out the technological and innovative pathways to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 in the European cement industry, one of which is the use of alternative fuels in the clinker manufacturing process.
The benefits of cement co-processing
The use of alternative fuels, or in other words co-processing, is the combination of simultaneous material recycling and energy recovery from waste in a thermal process. This substitutes natural mineral resources and fossil fuels, such as coal and petroleum products. Within a cement kiln, waste fuels are co-processed utilising the heat value derived from the waste fuel to substitute fossil fuels and incorporating the ash as a partial replacement of the raw materials, leaving no waste residue. 
In addition to providing sound and sustainable solutions for waste streams and strengthening the circular economy, the use of secondary materials in the cement kilns is key for society to reduce its CO2 emissions and support the vision of a carbon neutral Europe by 2050. It also allows to reduce the sector’s reliance on fossil fuels. 
Moreover, through co-processing, the cement sector provides a safe and affordable disposal route for national authorities and other industries by transforming the waste and by-products into alternative resources for cement production.
Overview and achievements of alternative fuels in cement industry
The use of alternative fuels (AF) as a resource in the European cement industry began over 30 years ago, in 1990. Since then, the AF usage rate has been steadily increasing every year, reaching 53% as the average rate in the EU-27 in 2021. The photo gallery on CEMBUREAU’s website provides case studies from the cement plants all over Europe. As discussed in CEMBUREAU’s podcast series on co-processing (which readers can listen to on Spotify or through the link hereby), cement experts believe that there is strong potential, with some plants achieving a very high rate (90-100%) of fossil fuel substitution. 

Typical alternative fuels currently used in the EU cement industry include: solid Recovered Fuel (SRF) / Refused Derived Fuel (RDF), end-of-life tyres, animal meal, sewage sludge, wood/paper/pulp waste, sawdust, and more. 
The impact of co-processing goes beyond the cement industry itself and affects a wide range of sectors including the wind, marine, construction, infrastructure, and industrial markets. In June 2023, CEMBUREAU in collaboration with 6 other European associations, has published a position paper highlighting the important role cement co-processing can play in treating end-of-life composite materials. The co-signed associations agree that cement co-processing offers a sustainable recycling solution. They call policymakers to recognise cement co-processing as a recycling process, which in turn will empower the EU to foster industrial growth and ensure a circular future for both the cement and composite material sectors.
Policy for cement co-processing 
The European cement industry has high ambitions to bring co-processing to new levels in the coming years. From 53% in 2021, the CEMBUREAU Roadmap aims to reach 60% alternative fuels by 2030, half of which (30%) will be biomass waste, and 90% by 2050, with more than half (50%) biomass waste. 
The study “Status and prospects of co-processing of waste in EU cement plants” (Ecofys) recognises the potential to replace nearly all conventional fuels with pre-treated waste – with no major technological impediment to achieve a 95% substitution rate.
So, what are the key levers that need activating to get there?
Policy is expected to play a decisive role in reaching the targets of the European cement industry. The EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan provides an opportunity to support the review of EU waste policy to ensure greater circularity throughout the EU economy. Moreover, CEMBUREAU believes that:
In particular, CEMBUREAU firmly believes that the contribution of the cement sector to the waste management value chain through co-incineration/co-processing should be acknowledged in the Waste Framework Directive and taken into account in the recycling targets of the Member States.
This acknowledgement should be based on a reliable methodology, following the existing provisions of the Article 11 (7) of the EC Waste Framework Directive. Such methodology could be provided by the new standard ISO/CD/4349, which is anticipated to be published in early 2024 by the ISO Technical Committee 300. The standard is entitled “Determination of the Recycling Index for co-processing” and aims to define a commonly acceptable methodology at global level for the calculation of the part of Solid Recovered Fuels (SRF) which is recycled when used in cement kilns.
In addition to the above and having in mind the current energy supply crisis in Europe, the use of alternative fuels in the cement industry will contribute to improving Europe’s energy independence. Relying on locally sourced waste and biomass waste for operations, while at the same time phasing out the use of fossil fuels, will be detrimental for reaching both energy self-sufficiency and the cement industry’s decarbonisation objectives.


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