One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure: Enabling Europe’s Bioeconomy
by Michael Eggleston* (Advanced Biofuels USA) From October 10th -11th the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology and the Bioeconomy (EFIB) celebrated 10 years in Brussels, Belgium, as it plays a crucial role in providing a central meeting place for policy and business communities to discuss how to harness the full potential of today’s innovations as the industrial biotechnology sector develops smarter, more sustainable products and processes in building Europe’s bioeconomy.
The bioeconomy is the production and use of renewable sources from land and sea, and the use of waste to make value-added products such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy. It is a concept that provides a blueprint for a more competitive, renewables-based future for Europe which, in turn, creates new jobs and stimulates economic growth.
Today’s economy relies heavily on fossil carbon. We burn oil and gas to power homes, industry and transport and rely on more than 100,000 fossil fuel based chemicals to make everyday products.
While renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power can help reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn, only the shift to a bio-economy can replace fossil-resource derived chemicals with plant based materials utilizing atmospheric CO2, mitigating the impacts of climate change. With 90% of Europe’s chemical industry feedstocks for non-energy use coming from fossil resources, assess to alternatives such as biomass or CO2 is an important strategic issue in lowering dependency on imports and contributing to material security.
Using renewable biomass to make products that have been traditionally fossil-carbon based holds great potential benefits for the EU. These benefits include the ability to re-grow feedstocks year after year, rather than relying on imported, finite fossil carbon; creating jobs in rural, coastal and deindustrialized areas; and boosting economic growth whilst fostering cooperation between different stakeholders along the value chain and providing farmers with new sources of income.
However, significant investments and bold political moves are needed in Europe in order to transition from dependence on fossil fuels towards renewable biomass feedstocks and to guarantee long-term commitment to sustainable, emerging industries. For this to happen there needs to be certainty that a sustainable supply of competitively priced, high-quality biomass will be available. Many regions in Europe could benefit from such developments if appropriately supportive rural and regional policies were put in place to enable the transportation and processing of sustainable sources renewable feedstocks in which farmers would be able to supply to biorefineries at a competitive price.
Sitting at the heart of the bioeconomy is the biorefinery, where industrial biotechnology turns renewable raw materials, such as agriculture and forestry residues, into essential everyday products such as fuels and plastics. In this way, industrial biotechnology creates smarter, more sustainable products and processes based on renewable raw materials, enabling carbon to be recycled at the end of a product’s life. A biorefinery requires considerable financial investment, so a long-term and coherent policy framework is needed in order for Europe to attract the levels of investment necessary to lead the development of a biorefining future.
Europe doesn’t have enough woody biomass to fuel the bioeconomy but has plenty of municipal waste to transform into biogas, chemicals and fuels. The main challenges in utilizing bio-waste as a feedstock are fostering a sustainable supply to feed existing and new value chains, optimizing efficient processing through R&D and pilot biorefineries, developing innovative products and speeding up market uptake of bio-based products.
For the Director-General of Environment for the European Commission, Daniel Calleja Crespo, developing a single definition of waste and methodology in the EU would maximize the procurement of feedstock streams in building a bio-based economy in Europe. Listen:
The world’s leading supplier of renewable diesel based in Finland, Neste, agrees that strong political action is needed to enable a bio-based economy however, desires a flexible long-term legal framework and a sustainable feedstock base abroad says Johan Lunabba, Director of Sustainability. Listen:
As the industrial biotechnology sector innovates renewable products and develops more efficient ways of securing sustainable a feedstock supply, promoting consumer awareness is key in enabling a bioeconomy in Europe on a political level.
Consumer awareness and acceptance of the benefits of bio-based products should be addressed through dialogue and communication with consumer representatives. Understanding and responding to consumer’s needs, concerns and perceptions about bio-based products and applications will make for better awareness and acceptance.
Establishing a high level of transparency through databases that record certified impacts of bio-based products, information on the full value chain from feedstock cultivation to application, and their benefits in terms of sustainability will help boost consumer confidence in bio-based products.
Despite the bioeconomy’s attractive appeal to lowering greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions, the low cost of oil has unfortunately been driving market-based decisions due to recent investments in shale-oil making the transition for bio-based carbon sources more difficult. With refineries built to last decades, this convincing future might lose traction with investors unless immediate political action is made facilitating the production and consumption of bio-based products.
The shale gas trend could be reversible if the EU is proactive in removing fossil fuel subsides, implementing a carbon tax and developing long-term policies to support investors in justifying their decisions.
According to Jean-Baptiste Barbaroux, the Corporate Development Director at Global Bioenergies, feedstocks are available in large amounts today and peak oil might come tomorrow as global warming continues to gain speed. Listen:
As Karmenu Vella the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries said, “We need our industrial system to behave much more like an eco-system. In an eco-system, the waste of one species is the resource to another. We need to recalibrate so that the output of one industry becomes automatically the input of another”.
* Michael Eggleston is a chemical engineering student specializing in the process control & risk management of sustainable development with the University of Rhode Island’s International Engineering Program and spending a semester abroad at the Technische Universität Darmstadt in Darmstadt, Germany. He will be reporting on and representing Advanced Biofuels USA at international conferences.