Eduardo Fernández, Director of Innovation at Urbaser
“INNOVATION IS ALWAYS A GOOD STRATEGY”
They say that innovation is an attitude, and Eduardo Fernández Giménez, as Urbaser’s Director of Innovation, and that’s the attitude he’s working to spread throughout the organisation. He always works with the idea of “zero waste”, with the aim of converting up to the very last link in the recycling chain into resources, whether it’s obtaining gas from organic waste or diesel fuel from shopping bags. Patient, curious, observant, informed, he is proud to be working at a place that provides a service to society, improving the quality of life of citizens.
May 2017, Web editorial desk.
What do you like to do when you aren’t innovating in environmental services?
I like traditional cuisine. My best dish, baked rice. It is a Valencian dish, similar to paella. I also make homemade buns and rolls. Cooking is a hobby that relaxes me a lot. I also like sports, running. Until recently, I ran two marathons a year, but now I run up to 10 km. at the most. I try to go to the gym every day. Reading is another of my hobbies, mainly noir fiction and historical novels. Now, for example, I’m reading The Travels of Marco Polo. You realize that the background of those travels was political, it represented the alliance between the Great Khan and the West.
Are you interested in politics?
Honestly, not much, although in the past I worked in the Administration for many years, first at the Ministry of Industry, as technical manager of industrial environment projects. My job was to support companies in adapting to environmental regulations. It was the 1990s, and industries saw new legislation as a barrier. It was a very interesting and enriching period. Then I spent two years at the Treasury, negotiating with Brussels for subsidies for the construction of Spanish infrastructures, mainly related to R&D.
“We have the opportunity to improve the quality of life for future generations.”
Cooking, reading and sport require good doses of patience…
I think it’s my big virtue, constancy and patience. And this is fundamental for innovation. People are very surprised when you say that you have run 42 km, but they don’t realise that it’s all mental, all about training. At times, however, I find it difficult to make decisions. Deciding is hard, but it has to be done. There are things that, looking back, I think might have gone better had other decisions been taken, but this happens to all of us and is part of our learning process, which is never-ending. In fact, if it were ever to end, that would be the time to move on to something else.
How did you arrive at Urbaser?
In 2001, I received an offer from Alfonso Maíllo. This offer coincided with two others, but I chose Urbaser without hesitation. I was convinced that it was a big company, and this was confirmed later on. In the public sector you legislate, but from private enterprise you acquire an economic and business dimension of what this legislation entails. This sector has allowed me to get to know the real problems of waste management. It gives me great pride to think that we are dedicated to solving real citizens’ problems. We do things for the environment and we have the opportunity to improve the quality of life of future generations. I am proud to be able to explain what we do as a company, that my job is to provide a service to society.
“We have invested time, effort and money, and I hope that this year we will have significant results.”
In these 16 years, what has been the best moment?
There have been many, fortunately. One of them was when we got the first major R&D financing project, the “OTERSU”. It was the first time in Spain that a service company obtained a project competing with other theoretically much more “technological” companies. Another important moment for me was the inauguration of the Alfonso Maíllo Innovation Centre in Zaragoza. It was the culmination of a great deal of effort, time and resources. It’s a project that means a lot to me personally, because it recognizes Alfonso Maíllo, who was one of the world’s greatest experts in waste and a person with an exceptional human quality.
Where is innovation in the sector headed?
Over the next five years, technological progress will be in small increments, both in Spain and abroad. Technically speaking, waste management is very advanced right now. But collection is another matter. I believe that there will be major innovations in this area. A very important social debate is going on about the ideal collection model: if we want to pick up door-to-door, four or five bins, etc. This change will depend on the awareness of citizens and administrations. It is the administration that will have to launch tenders asking us for this service. I have been in this business for 28 years from both the administration and the private sector sides, and I have never seen innovation stop growing. All governments have favoured innovation. You always have to innovate. If you don’t, you’ll be left behind. It happens in all sectors and ours is no exception. Innovation is the strategy, and it’s also compatible with maintaining and generating employment.
What would you like to invent?
The main problem with rubbish is its visibility. If we were somehow able to keep it out of sight, that would be great. Currently, I would like to make our project for the recovery of plastics a reality, being able to extract green diesel from plastics and do it in an economically viable way. We would be able to obtain fuel from trash bags, shopping bags, etc., which currently have no other outlet. If we could do that, we would close the cycle of these plastics. We have invested time, effort and money, and I hope that we will have significant results this year.
You always have to innovate. If you don’t, you’ll be left behind. It happens in all sectors and ours is no exception. Innovation is the strategy, and it’s also compatible with maintaining and generating employment.
What innovation projects is Urbaser currently working on?
My fundamental mission is to plan the strategy from a technological point of view and to create and promote the culture of innovation in the organisation. With this foundation in place, Urbaser is conducting successful research into formulas for obtaining economically viable technology that will enable us to produce liquid fuels from plastics using the rejects from treatment plants.
We are also working on obtaining secondary raw materials from the organic matter of municipal waste and ashes from energy recovery processes. In addition, we are investigating new uses for the bio-stabilised material from organic matter from municipal waste collection. We are looking into new processes, technologies and configurations to reduce waste and maximise the resources contained in waste.
Will we ever have smart cities?
In my view, the current problem we are facing is knowing how to take advantage of all the information we are generating. The Smart City concept is moving in the same direction. Everything that is geared towards saving or energy efficiency is moving forward. Water management is advancing as well. In our industry, we have run myriad tests that give us a lot of information, but we have to evaluate its profitability.
There are also issues regarding the labour model. Millenials, for example, account for 70% of the labour force and they have to be the ones to lead innovation. They are the best-trained generation, but they have to understand that achieving results requires effort. Everything’s been given to them. And I don’t think any other generation will live as they have. They want to make a lot of money in very little time, and that’s complicated.
Complete the following sentence: I would like…
I would like for us, as a company, to find the way to make people feel that their work is important and makes a lot of sense. We need to improve communication, both internally and externally. In this regard, I think that the new website and our digital presence is a first step. There’s a lot of us, and it’s a challenge.