Bioeconomy and circular economy

Bioeconomy and circular economy

Convergence and divergence of a circular bioeconomy

Nowadays, we hear a lot about the bioeconomy and the circular economy, and indeed the circular bioeconomy; making the bioeconomy and circular economy comparison of both paradigms worthy of consideration.  The bioeconomy encompasses the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy. The circular economy foresees an end to ‘take, make, dispose’ in a linear fashion; preferring to keep resources in circulation for as long as possible through reuse, recycling, remanufacture and waste minimisation.

Both concepts are crucial for addressing the global challenges, as exemplified by the Paris Climate Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals ( SDGs) for a more sustainable and resource efficient world with a low carbon footprint. However, while both share elements of commonality and complementarity, there are also points of divergence that need to be respected and taken account of in terms of the emphasis and breadth of scope of both paradigms.

The circular economy has been largely dominated by the metal and mineral industries, with biomass handling in the form of an additional organic, recycling pathway constituting a relatively minor part of the overall wider materials framework. Nevertheless, the bioeconomy as it has developed clearly fits within the waste minimisation ethos of the circular economy, when it comes to using biomass residues and waste materials as second generation feedstocks for biorefining. The circular bioeconomy has developed this second generation biomass conversion technology as an alternative to the first generation transformation of food crops to biofuels for fossil fuel replacement. This first bioeconomy wave  had prompted a negative narrative around food versus fuel and negative climate implications around indirect land use change (ILUC). 

bioeconomy and circular economy

It’s important to recognise that the bioeconomy has special features clearly diverging from the circular economy. This includes the focus in waste biorefining on valorisation of biomass waste by transformation into new “virgin” products with added functionality and performance. This contrasts with the reuse, recycle (biodegradation) remanufacture approach inherent in the circular economy, where the emphasis is on maintaining the value of products, materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible.

On the other hand, a point of convergence is also evident with the cascading use of biomass prioritising the transformation into higher value materials and chemicals over energy recovery. This parallels the  ‘share, maintain, reuse, remanufacture and recycle’ idea of the circular economy, likewise intended to use resources to the maximum and reduce waste to a minimum. While many of these higher value bioproducts may not readily lend themselves to the principles of the circular economy, a future trend might see development of new bioproducts increasingly taking into consideration reusability and recycling needs at the design stage . An existing example here is a preference for bioplastics to be not just biobased but also biodegradable.


Circular bioeconomy

Policy Framework

The waste management and recycling industry forms a central part of the circular economy and in the EU represents a labour intensive, high growth sector that has invested hugely in capital infrastructure, while providing up to 1.5 million jobs. As such, it is a sector that could potentially feel under threat by the advent of modern advanced waste biorefineries in their joint quest to secure material feedstocks at scale. Notwithstanding this, we need to avoid a policy anomaly whereby the feedstocks for waste biorefining might be diverted to a less profitable activity and leave biorefineries starved of feedstock. Such policy contradictions around waste regulation in many countries centre around the classification of “waste”, that in turn  limits a broader “secondary raw material” application in biorefining. For example, current waste legislation may hamper novel utilisations of waste (e.g. sludge) for energy.

Clearly, a coherent policy framework is required to enable both sectors to operate in tandem, maximising efficiencies and minimising contradictions and lock-ins. In the EU, there is a move towards pushing up the waste hierarchy with continuous pressure to reduce the amount of material being landfilled. Here is an area where the bioeconomy can support the circular economy by for example diverting  organic municipal waste (MSW) from landfill to biorefining.

In conclusion, it is crucial to connect the bioeconomy to the circular economy concept. This is not to acknowledge that neither is fully part of the other nor embedded in the other. But together they are stronger in advancing towards major societal goals. The updated EU Bioeconomy Strategy (2018) responds to this need by advancing a more holistic bioeconomy model that firmly embeds sustainability and circularity as essential features of an evolving circular bioeconomy (CBE) approach.