Aclima Basque Environment Cluster and Basque Health Cluster have defined a new bio-health value chain based on the circular economy for the production and supply of essential health products, after the Coronavirus crisis revealed the external dependence on supplies.
Experts and companies from the region provided keys and examples for incorporating sustainability into the health industry during a conference held last Friday in Donostia (Basque Country).
This project responds to the 2030 Agenda and the European Green Deal and is being developed within the framework of aid for the Circular Economy of the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa.
The crisis generated by the Covid 19 pandemic has exposed the weaknesses arising from dependence on external supplies, including essential health products. In the Basque Country, over the last year and a half, and only in the health sector, the consumption of this type of product has increased by between 350 and 400%; mainly protective materials such as masks, gloves, PCR tests and vaccination kits, among other health products, which are difficult to recycle due to the type of product and materials they are made of.
Aclima – the Basque Eco-industry’s reference and umbrella cluster – and Basque Health Cluster – the cluster of science and technology companies for health in the Basque Country – have put on the table the need not only to have a ‘zero kilometre’ health industry that guarantees the supply of this type of product, but also that the products respond to the parameters of the circular economy, i.e., meeting sustainability parameters in all phases of the value chain.
Over the last year, they have carried out joint work to identify opportunities to integrate the health sector and the eco-industry, the conclusions of which were presented on 8 October in Donostia, at a conference that also included the participation of experts and companies from the territory that provided keys and examples to take the first steps towards this goal. The initiative is supported by the Department of Economic Promotion, Tourism and Rural Environment of the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa and is aligned with the objectives of Agenda 2030 and the European Green Deal, which propose a roadmap towards a sustainable economy, transforming environmental challenges into opportunities.
Together with the clusters, different Gipuzkoan agents from the bio-health and environment sector have participated in this project: healthcare product manufacturing companies such as Bexen Medical, Wolfratex and Mizar Additive; healthcare product distribution companies such as Celulosas Vasca; healthcare waste management companies such as Elirecon and Sterile Services; as well as the private hospitals Clínica de la Asunción and Clínica IMQ, OSAKIDETZA, OSI Donostialdea and University Hospital of Donostia.
Local and Sustainable Health Industry
In the last year and a half, the industry in Gipuzkoa has had a remarkable capacity to react in order to boost the development of medical devices and channel them into the health system. For example, from not producing masks in 2019, in one year, it has gone on to produce more than 140 million of them, thanks to the initiative of companies to open a new line of business in relation to this type of medical device. In the case of syringes, while in 2019 production did not reach 1.3 million units, this year around 11.7 million have been produced in response to vaccination.
During her speech at the conference, Olga Martín, director of Aclima, stressed that it is necessary to go a step further because “after the crisis, all the news and evidence tells us that the introduction of the principles of circular economy and sustainability is becoming more relevant for recovery, and that this can generate opportunities for diversification and generation of new chains, as the areas of opportunity between bio-health and the environment are focused on the different stages of the value chain“. In other words, it is not just a question of producing in Gipuzkoa, but of producing while incorporating the environmental perspective into the whole process.
In this regard, María Pascual de Zulueta, Director of the Basque Health Cluster, pointed out that “from product design itself, to packaging and the choice of raw materials, to logistics and the development of technologies that enable the reuse of products” are all susceptible to improvement within this framework. In fact, as a result of the project, Aclima and Basque Health have defined a new circular bio-health value chain, in which the environment and aspects of the circular economy are introduced into the different stages of the manufacture of sustainable essential health products.
For his part, Iker Estensoro, Director of Economic Promotion of the Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, said: “This conference and the projects it entails are fully in line with our vision, with our priorities and with the Gipuzkoa we want to build. Hence our support. They fit, and they do so in both the what and the how. In the what, because the two sectors they represent, environment and bio-health, already have a great weight in our economy today, with a significant contribution to GDP, which will certainly grow, because they are also fundamental for the future. There are three major transitions that will mark the coming decades: digital, ecological and social, the latter linked to demographic change, health and the importance that care will acquire. Two of these transitions are represented here, which gives an idea of the relevance of this initiative. These two areas of work will play a crucial role in strengthening and transforming our economic fabric, making it stronger and more sustainable. To move towards a model that allows us to build a better world, from Gipuzkoa and the Basque Country, with people at the centre. Because, let us not forget, the environment and bio-health are two transversal axes with implications for the majority of our economic activity, and for people’s quality of life“.
Also taking part today were representatives of some of the companies and organisations that have taken part in the project, such as Ainara Martínez from MIK – Management Research Centre of the MONDRAGON Corporation attached to the Business Faculty of the University of Mondragon; Borja Anza from BEXEN MEDICAL, who explained the process of opening a new line of business in the middle of a pandemic; Mª José Barriola from TKNIKA explained the importance of the certification of health material, specifically on the validation of the certification of masks in pandemics; Miren Urzelai from MIRANDAOLA SERVICIOS AMBIENTALES explained the opportunities for integrating environmental improvement practices in the health sector; Regina Martínez, from the Clínica de la Asunción dealt with the impact of the pandemic and actions to care for the environment in the hospital environment; and Esther González from ELIRECON offered the keys to the management of health care waste. After the speeches, a workshop was held in which the more than 30 organisations attending the conference were able to analyse the opportunity scenarios identified and promote collaborative projects.
X-ray of the health and environment sectors in the Basque Country
The Basque Country has more than 200 companies dedicated to health and several pioneering centres in Spain that work in collaboration with universities and hospitals. Of these, more than 94 entities carry out research in biotechnology, devoting more than half of their internal expenditure to R&D. The biotechnology business sector in the Basque Country is mainly made up of small and medium-sized companies, with a high level of qualified personnel and a constant commitment to and investment in research, which develop products and services mainly applied to health. They employ 8,000 people. In 2020, companies in the sector had a turnover of more than 1,668 M euros, representing 2% of the Basque Country’s GDP.
For their part, the companies in the Basque environmental industry cluster association (Aclima) had a turnover in the Basque Country of 2,101 million euros in 2020 in environmental fields. All of this, maintaining the level of employment of 2019 and with prospects of slight growth for 2021. Thus, the Basque environmental sector has come to represent around 5% of the Basque Country’s GDP, and is set to continue to grow and become a lever of competitiveness for the rest of the sectors in the economic recovery after COVID-19. Within the sector there is a high representation of the waste and secondary raw materials management value chain, which includes managers, equipment manufacturers and recovery companies.
Aclima is the benchmark cluster that brings together the Basque Eco-industry and represents both the private sector (industries and services), the field of Knowledge (Universities and Technology Centres) and the Public Sector in the following value chains: waste, contaminated soils, integral water cycle, climate change and biodiversity and ecosystems. One of its objectives is to support companies in the environmental sector in improving their competitiveness through the identification and characterisation of new business opportunities, innovation and international positioning, always in terms of cooperation.
About Basque Health Cluster
Basque Health Cluster is a non-profit association whose aim is to coordinate, represent, manage, promote and defend the common interests of the associated companies, in collaboration with the public administrations and other organisations in the field of biosciences and health, as well as contributing to the development, growth and internationalisation of its associates and the biosciences and health sector in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country.The Cluster brings together 70 of the 150 Basque firms working in biohealth. The cluster is finalising a new strategic plan that will be based on attracting talent, improving funding, internationalisation and promoting public-private collaboration.