What Is The Circular Bio-Economy?

A pictorial describing the concept of the circular bio-economy
Image by Bessi, c/o Pixabay.

The circular bio-economy is a concept in the topic of sustainability. It is being increasingly applied to the production and consumption of food in all its forms but it also covers how water, the forests, the oceans to name a few environmental niches are used.

Plenty of regional level initiatives are aimed at adding value to underused agricultural materials or reducing if not completely eradicating supply chain losses. At this moment in time though, we also have to meet consumer demands for increasingly better nutrition from our ingredients and foods. We also currently have a pandemic caused by Covid-19 which is crippling nation’s economies and may well throw many governments off the track of developing the circular bio-economy concept. That is quite a challenge but in this short account we will address what the current state is and how developing the circular bio-economy is being addressed.

We need to look at some terms to understand what we mean !

Bioeconomy

The term bioeconomy according to a definition supplied by the European Commission from 2012, refers to the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into:-

  • value added food
  • feed
  • bio-based products
  • bioenergy

The concept is being developed by the European Union with the support of some 50 countries around the rest of the world. To give it more flesh, the EU defines it:-

‘comprises those parts of the economy that use renewable biological resources from land and sea – such as crops, forests, fish, animals and micro-organisms – to produce food, materials and energy.’

Circular Economy

The European Commission in 2015 defined the term ‘circular economy’ as maintaining the value of products, materials and resources in the economy for a longer period by  minimising the generation of waste. The concept of the circular economy, as developed and propagated by the authoritative Ellen MacArthur Foundation, considers two cycles in the circular economy: the technical and the biological cycle.

The Circular Bioeconomy

When we come to describing the circular bioeconomy we are in truth discussing the overlap of the bioeconomy with the circular economy (Newton et al., 2017). This terms now implies that we are retaining the renewable biological resources and and adding value to the waste  streams in the bioeconomy for as long a period as possible.

The marriage of the two ideas of circular economy and bioeconomy have proved problematic to date because of the way in which people view the overlap of a technical cycle with a biological cycle. 

Global Food Loss And Food Waste Trends

Food loss and food waste are two different concepts but critical to understanding the development of a circular bio-economy.

Most consumer driven food waste occurs in the developed world. By this we mean portions of the world such as Europe, North America, Industrialised Asia (i.e. Singapore, Japan, Taiwan & China) and Oceania which account for the majority of food wasted by consumers.

However, over 90% of all global food loss happens in the  developing parts of Asia and Africa. Food loss, as opposed to food waste, is a discussion about production, postharvest, processing and distribution. So, the rest of the world i.e. North, West and Central Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and even some parts of Industrialised Asia account for the majority of the food loss (FAO, 2015). This element of the circular bio-economy is a major concern globally because large portions of the population are simply not seeing the food that is produced on their own doorstep. 

Under most circumstances, food loss is accepted as a cost of conducting agri-business in many value chains around the world. It is reckoned that 30% of the food produced is either lost or wasted. That amounts to 1.3 billion tonnes of food down the drain so to speak. The highest rates of loss were recorded with perishable produce such as fruits and vegetables, roots and tubers mainly because of cosmetic standards imposed by purchasers (retailers and wholesalers) of food.

Funding Bodies

Around the world, governments, private businesses and non-government organizations are funding initiatives to understand or get to grips with the concept of the circular bioeconomy.

The European Union has developed a platform of proposals under Horizon2020 which took over from projects under the FP7 umbrella. The level of EU funding in R&D has doubled from FP7 days to reach 3.8 billion Euros under the Horizon2020 scheme.

There is also a scheme for bio-based industries run by the EU which has 3.7 billion Euros of funding. This is known as the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU). This is a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) between the EU and the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) funding projects aimed at:-

  • Building new value chains based on the development of sustainable biomass collection and supply systems;
  • Unlocking the utlilisation and valorisation of waste and ligno-cellulosic biomass;
  • Bringing existing value chains to new levels, thus creating a market pull and reinforcing the competiteness of EU agriculture and forest based industries;
  • R&D upgrading and building demonstration and flagship bio-refineries.

The BBI JU is responsible for the implementation of open Call for proposals for Research and Innovation Actions (RIAs), Innovation Actions (IAs – DEMOs and FLAGs) and Coordination and Support Actions (CSAs), in line with the Horizon 2020 rules for participation. It has a call identifier ‘H2020-BBI-JTI-2020′.

In Finland, the Finnish state-owned energy company Fortum and forest industry specialist Metsä Group has joined forces with Business Finland to create a top range R&D programme concerning pulp fibre. Business Finland has granted 20 million Euros to this R&D programme.

Pulp fibre is obtained from trees and Finland is a major exporter of this commodity. The group has developed a four-year joint R&D programme called ExpandFibre. This aims to  develop ground-breaking technologies and smart business concepts that are required to convert straw and wood pulp fibre into novel bioproducts, such as textile fibres. 

ExpandFibre is a innovative collaboration scheme to be launched during the summer of 2020 and extending until August 2024. The programme focuses on seven research themes:

  • Textiles
  • Biocomposites
  • Packaging materials
  • Other new fibre products
  • Hemicellulose
  • Lignin 

References

FAO (2015) FAO ‘Global Food Losses And Food Wastes’.

Newton, A. et al. (2017) Expert Group Report. Review of the EU Bioeconomy Strategy and its Action Plan. European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. Brussels 2017.

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