The Unica Innovation Challenge is an annual innovation award developed by technical service provider Unica, to encourage their suppliers and chain partners to develop products and services that help make the entire sector more sustainable, more productive or simply better in some other way. In 2021, the prize went to the Utrecht-based company AQ Group, that surprised the jury with an innovative concept for circular air filters.
“By switching to a plastic cartridge with removable filters, we can sustainably separate the waste, and drastically reduce the size of the waste mountain,” explained Eric van Dijk, Director of AQ Group. “We are delighted that Unica has recognised the potential in this innovative concept, and is willing to assist us in setting a process in motion that will encourage more sustainability and circularity in our sector.”
AQ Group are specialists in optimising air and water quality in buildings. The company maintains, disinfects, inspects and cleans air conditioning and drinking water systems. Over the past few years, the focus has increasingly shifted towards innovative, sustainable solutions, to improve the sustainability and energy efficiency of air handling units. Since the advent of the COVID-19 crisis, the demand for clean air and healthy buildings has grown considerably.
Sustainable waste separation
Eric van Dijk was one of the founders of AQ Group, twenty years ago. The company today employs 120 people and is still growing. “We are doing well, and our success shows,” explained Eric. “At the end of each working day, our engineers return to the company to dispose of the old air filters they have replaced for our customers, in the compacter. The filters used today in air handling units consist of a large steel frame and a series of deep fabric pocket filters. The entire unit has to be replaced once or twice a year. The result is a huge mountain of waste, every day, of a type that cannot be sustainably separated, because the various materials are permanently fixed together.” The situation is a thorn in Eric’s side. “Did you know that in the Netherlands alone, 2.5 million air filters of this size are replaced every year? That means 30,000 sea containers full, all originating from China. What an outdated concept! And when I hear the crunching sound of the compacter ....” Eric shuddered. “So I started asking myself: could we do things differently?”
Circular air filters
The answer, it turns out, was a resounding yes! “We came up with the idea of a new filter system consisting of two separate elements, a cartridge and exchangeable filters,” explained Eric. “The plastic cartridge is easy to install, and lasts around ten years. It is designed to fit in every current type of air handling unit. The exchangeable air filters can be easily slid into and out of the surrounding cartridge. The filters themselves are made of a single material, and are far smaller and less bulky than their predecessors, and as a result require far less raw material and packaging. We have the filters manufactured locally, in different sizes, in a factory in Udenhout. That alone represents a huge saving in CO2 footprint, compared with the current transport from China. And because following use the old filters can be cleaned and reused in ceiling panels, there is far less waste at the end of the day, and what waste there is can be sustainably separated. Finally, we have designed the filters in such a way that less pressure is needed to force the air through them, which in turn reduces the power consumption of the air handling units.” Eric is proud of the end result. “We ran a pilot trial in our own building and everything worked perfectly. That is why we believe that circular filter systems will dominate the future!”
At AQ Group, they believed their new system could be a real game changer, so they decided to present the circular air filter concept at the Unica Innovation Challenge. “We had already signed up with a different idea, but decided that the circular filter system was more innovative and more important. It could help improve sustainability throughout the sector.”
AQ Group are not air filter manufacturers, and have no ambitions in that direction. “We are not in it for the profit. Our aim is to initiate a movement for change, and someone always has to make the first move. You then need to join forces with other market parties to make your idea a success. In my mind, the Unica Innovation Challenges shows Unica to be a company with a vision on sustainability and the mentality of a start-up. A company that employs people who think out of the box, that sees opportunities, that responds rapidly and that believes in the power of cooperation.”
‘The Unica Innovation Challenge shows Unica to be a company with a vision on sustainability’
Unica Innovation Challenge
The jury of the Unica Innovation Challenge was impressed by the presentation of circular air filters. As well as achieving a high score on the R-ladder, that reflects the level of circularity, according to the jury the idea also stood out in terms of practical feasibility and application. “We have received loads of positive reactions and congratulations, from so many different people,” continued an enthusiastic Eric. “It felt like the entire sector knew that we had won the prize. Now it is time to take the next step. We have been awarded an investment budget, and intend to further elaborate the concept, together with Unica. We plan to produce the cartridges from old PET bottles, and reuse the filters. We have been given a six-month trial period to run the system at the Royal Library in The Hague, and we have also equipped Unica’s head offices in Hoevelaken with our circular air filters.” Eric hopes that many other customers will follow suit: “The faster we are able to implement these circular air filters across the Netherlands, the better it will be for the environment!”