The bioeconomy: A realistic opportunity to make a major contribution to creating a sustainable circular economy

Dr Jen Vanderhoven, COO of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), discusses the importance of the bioeconomy, and how bio-based materials can help us reach net zero.

To successfully tackle climate change, the UK has to end its reliance on fossil resources and adopt more sustainable, circular practices. The bioeconomy, driven by a resource efficiency, waste management and sustainability offers a logical and promising alternative.

The Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) is at the forefront of the campaign to transform the UK economy. The Innovation Platform spoke to COO, Dr Jen Vanderhoven, to find out more about how the bioeconomy, and bio-based materials can help us reach Net Zero.

Can you summarise the BBIA and how, as an organisation, you support and promote biodegradable and biobased industries in the UK?

The BBIA champions the industrial bioeconomy. As an organisation, we aim to accelerate the development and adoption of bio-based and biodegradable materials that can replace our reliance on fossil resources – ultimately reducing the impact of human consumption on the planet.

We support organisations working towards our vision of a more sustainable future and circular bioeconomy, which simultaneously drives economic growth in the UK. This is primarily achieved through advocacy, collaboration, and education.

The association serves as a platform for organisations and professionals within the bio-based and biodegradable sector to network and collaborate, exchange ideas, and form partnerships.

By working closely with the government, policymakers, and industry leaders, the organisation is able to promote and advocate for policies that support the growth of the bio-based and biodegradable industries, and support projects that aim to develop new sustainable materials and technologies that reduce waste and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We proactively share information that elevates public and policy makers knowledge about the benefits of bio-based and biodegradable products, to inform, educate, and inspire action.

What is the bioeconomy and why is it important?

The world is on fire, literally. The summer of 2023 has seen unprecedented heatwaves and wildfires across Europe and the US, as well as the hottest day ever recorded globally in July. These temperatures would not have been possible without human-induced climate change.

We simply cannot afford to keep digging up fossil resources and releasing more carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. As a nation, we have committed to become net zero by 2050, and are aware that our use of fossil resources needs to reduce. Considering, in the UK alone, we are emitting 299 million tonnes of CO2 a year1, this is a huge task.

This is where the bioeconomy comes in. The bioeconomy refers to an economic system in which biological resources (biomass), such as plants, animals, and microorganisms, and their byproducts are used to produce a wide range of products, including chemicals and plastics – waste from one process becomes a resource for another.

Building a world-class bioeconomy will transform our economy. By removing our dependence on finite fossil resources, it has the potential to create resource efficient, economically and environmentally sustainable, solutions. These solutions will help to tackle global challenges and create opportunities in agri-food, chemicals, materials, energy and fuel production, health and the environment.

What are the different types of biobased and biodegradable materials and products?

There are a whole host of different types of bio-based and biodegradable materials and products, and the way they are named, or misnamed, can cause much confusion!

Bio-based (or partially bio-based) materials, also known as biomaterials, are materials that are derived from renewable biomass. Various chemicals and solvents can be derived from biomass, offering alternatives to traditional petrochemicals in industries such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture.

Biodegradable materials are substances that can be broken down, under the right conditions, by natural processes into simpler, non-toxic compounds when exposed to environmental conditions like moisture, heat, and microorganisms. These materials can decompose over time, returning to the natural environment without leaving behind harmful residues or lasting pollution.

Biodegradable materials, may or may not be derived from renewable biomass, or may be a mix of both biomass and fossil resources.

The term ‘biodegradable’ should not be confused with ‘compostable,’ as compostable materials have specific requirements for breaking down in industrial composting facilities.

© shutterstock/Wunlop_Worldpix_Exposure

What are the benefits of using biobased and biodegradable products?

The benefits of using bio-based and biodegradable products are countless: reducing GHG emissions from landfill, improving our nations soil quality, and reducing agricultural plastics pollution, to name a few.

The 9.5 million tonnes of food waste generated by the UK every year is primarily sent to landfill, where it decomposes and accounts for 8% of all UK GHG emissions, and 31% of methane emissions.

There is a huge opportunity to prevent these emissions by composting, turning waste back to soil, and improving soil quality in the process. Soil is vital, with UK agriculture providing half of the food we eat. Thanks to over-farming and loss of soil fertility, we only have 40 viable harvests left in the UK, threatening our food security. To overcome poor soils farmers are forced to use synthetic fertilisers, which produce huge amounts of GHGs in their manufacture.

For effective household food waste collection, each house needs a food waste caddy, and compostable bin liners must become the standard.

The use of compostable packing materials that come in to contact with food, is another area where these materials would benefit the environment. Packaging contaminated with food waste cannot be easily recycled, and is usually incinerated, emitting harmful GHGs.

For this reason, consistent, UK-wide, collection of household food waste and compostable packaging, in compostable liners, is essential. It must be government mandated, something which the BBIA aims to ensure.

By offering support to its members, the BBIA broadcasts the benefits offered by composting and compostable plastics.

Another area where biodegradable materials could offer a significant benefit is in agriculture, particularly in the application of biodegradable mulch films.

Plastic mulch films are often used in agriculture to cover the soil around plants. While they have several benefits, such as weed suppression, moisture retention, and temperature control, the use of plastic mulch films can have environmental consequences that contribute to pollution.

This has spurred the development of biodegradable alternatives, which are incorporated directly into the soil at the end of their life, where microflora convert them into carbon dioxide, water and biomass.

Several BBIA members manufacture biodegradable and compostable plastics ideal for applications in agriculture, including certified soil-biodegradable mulch films which can remain in the soil and be ploughed in after mechanical harvest.

This has many benefits for farmers and for society. Above all, it reduces the amount of persistent microplastics in agricultural soil caused by remains of mulch films and thus contributes to a sustainable food production that keeps agricultural soil healthy and productive for a longer time.

The BBIA represents any organisation involved the bioeconomy, from farmers to feedstock suppliers, and from bio-based materials developers to those who use, and recycle them.

What are the challenges of creating a sustainable bioeconomy?

Innovation in this area is slow, and hampered by a lack of government regulatory and investment support to incentivise the bio-based materials sector growth.

To date, the UK Government has paid little attention to the importance of developing, and commercialising, both existing and novel bio-based and biodegradable products in reaching net zero.

The UK is the home of significant and long-standing academic excellence in bio-based and biodegradable materials. There is therefore huge potential for us to be a leader in this space, but as other areas of the world are already implementing policies to drive this sector forwards, the UK is rapidly losing the potential competitive advantage.

There is a failure to understand what is happening globally, especially in the US. Under the Inflation Reduction Act2, and the new ‘Bold Goals for U.S. Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing’ strategy, the administration has established new targets for the American bioeconomy. Part of the strategy seeks alternative processes to produce recyclable-by-design materials from renewable biomass and intermediate feedstocks. It also sets out to develop low-carbon-intensity product pathways and promote a circular economy for materials.

Achieving these goals will position the United States at the forefront of a vibrant global bioeconomy, and enable net-zero or net-negative emissions as well as a reduction in fossil resource reliance.

Ambitious targets accompany these objectives. In five years’ time, in the US, the chemicals and materials sector will have reduced its lifecycle CO2 emissions by 70%; and in 20 years’ time 90% of all plastics will be bio-based.

Whilst the US’s aspirational targets may seem difficult to achieve, the administration has put financial resources behind the policy to stimulate production of bio-based materials. The UK has no such Bioeconomy Strategy having withdrawn the 2018 version in 2021. Consequently, the UK risks losing out on any new biomanufacturing capacity, leaving the field to American competition, and other countries adopting similar approaches.

The UK urgently requires a new and meaningful bioeconomy strategy, with a significant associated funding package. At the heart of this must be the stimulus of bio-based industrial development, through market pull instruments such as targets and mandates for bio-based materials in the UK marketplace.

Incentives to transition to bio-based plastics could include tax credits, grants, and subsidies for research and development, production, and use of bio-based and biodegradable materials.

For example, key stakeholders have drawn attention to the existing ‘plastics tax’, a policy offering tax incentives if plastics are more than 30% recycled plastic by content. It is strongly felt that this should be rolled out to all biomass derived, biodegradable and compostable materials.

Consistent long-term funding for research and development into bio-based based and biodegradable materials, is also required. Funding for academic institutions, research organizations, and private companies will accelerate technological advancements, scale-up production, and reduce costs, making bio-based materials more competitive.

Alongside this, costs to market must be subsidised, and REACH registration must be simplified, for chemicals made from bio-based feedstocks.

Bio-based materials often face cost competitiveness challenges when compared to their fossil-based counterparts. High capital investment costs, limited economies of scale, and the dependency on fluctuating feedstock prices can make bio-based material production economically unviable. Achieving cost parity or cost advantage is crucial for their commercialisation and widespread adoption.

What plans does the BBIA have in the coming months and years?

We are just about to launch our new strategy for 2024-2027 and areas we see as important include:

  • Enabling a truly circular economy through implementation of organic material recycling;
  • The defossilisation of the chemicals and plastics sectors; and
  • The development of the novel sustainable materials of the future.

I would welcome any organisation working in these areas to please reach out to us and help us shape the sustainable UK bioeconomy of the future.

For more information, please get in touch with Jen Vanderhoven, COO, BBIA

References

  1. Annual Statement of Emissions for 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk)
  2. Inflation Reduction Act Guidebook | Clean Energy | The White House

Please note, this article will also appear in the sixteenth edition of our quarterly publication.

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