Back 12.12.2011

Bioeconomy: From economies of scale to economies of sustainability

Bio-based economy changes fundamentally the current production paradigms. The key of it are closed, integrated material cycles across industries and communities. Innovative thinking and open dialogue are required to develop and implement the best solutions and policies of the new, bio-based world.

Bio-based economy is perceived as an alternative to the current, mainly fossil-based economy. In the fossil-based economy, fossil raw materials are extracted from underground reservoirs, refined in large-scale processes into fuels and various other products, and then shipped all over the world. The economies of scale are applied, as the feedstock is available in concentrated and large reservoirs, and the refined fuels have a high energy content which justifies long haul shipping.

Bio-Based economy develops within the boundaries of biosphere

In the bio-based economy, the basis of the system is fundamentally different. Although biomass can be refined into fuels and various other products, the sustainable base of bio-based feedstock is limited. The annual growth of global biomass is one element of the sustainability limitation, in order to ensure sustaining the Earth´s biocapacity in volume. Another limitation is to keep the quality of the global biocapacity, i.e. not to harm the biodiversity or carbon storage potential of soils and vegetation.

The geographical distribution of biomass is also different from the geographical distribution of fossil raw materials. Generally, the biomass is distributed globally more evenly. However, large regional differences exist in its availability in terms of volumes, quality and possibilities to respond to the increasing demand.

As the amount of bio-based feedstock is limited, it is of utmost importance to think about the overall effectiveness of the utilization of the bio-based raw materials. The bio-based refining chains have endless options for production of food and feed, materials, chemicals, biofuels and energy. The best refining chains take into account the overall effectiveness and sustainability by utilizing sustainable feedstock, integrating production and utilizing all side streams and waste streams effectively. By integrating also the communal material and waste streams with industrial production the overall efficiency is enhanced even more. Through efficient recycling of materials and closed material loops the same bio-based feedstock can be utilized several times in production of materials and finally in energy production. Closed material loops enable also recycling of nutrients and minerals, like phosphorus, that are vital for production of biomass.

Paradigm shift rather than a raw material shift

This leads us to the conclusion, that bio-based economy is not a shift from fossil-based raw materials into bio-based raw materials. Rather it is a systemic change into more integrated, sustainable and local production and more closed material cycles. How bio-based economy looks like in different regions of the world can vary a lot.

For example, in industrialized countries with large metropolis and limited amount of local virgin biomass, the key is urban biorefineries. In urban biorefineries the communal recycled materials and waste streams are utilized in integrated production of commodities, biofuels and energy. In rural areas with rich natural resources integrated large-scale production of products with high value addition (such as pharma, cosmetics and engineered bio-based materials) together with biofuels and energy is possible. In developing countries the communities can develop directly into eco-communities. They are designed by applying principles of the bio-based economy (closed material loops and integrated local production of food, commodities and energy).

Another key issue is the management of the complex supply chain of the biorefineries. The bio-based feedstock can vary from fractions of communal waste into plants, wood, algae and components thereof, together with side streams and discarded materials from other production units. Concepts for trading and logistics of the various bio-based feedstock elements are important. They are needed both in global and local level. Equally important are the concepts for handling, characterization, and unit processes which are required for processing the various bio-based streams into a uniform feedstock for a biorefinery. One aspect is also to separate various waste streams into own closed loops already in the source.

System-level sustainability: beyond current LCA

An important part of the bio-based economy development are system-level sustainability assessments in order to identify the best concepts. Life-cycle assessments (LCA) are the basis for new developments in this area. In a new integrated production paradigm the system-wide assessment must reach far beyond the current best practices in LCA, though. All these development needs provide also significant business opportunities on the global scale.

Additional ideas on various concepts and scenarios of the future bio-based economy can be found in recently published scenarios Gaia conducted for Forestcluster Ltd, and a recent scenario report for Sitra.

To conclude, bio-based economy is fundamentally different from the fossil-based economy and calls for integration of material cycles and integrated material and energy production across industries and communities. It requires new system-wide thinking to be able to identify and develop the best concepts for varying local needs. It also calls for development and applying of policies, regulation and incentives to support this development in the best possible way. The mission of the bio-based economy is not impossible, but it might become one without coherent steering, future-oriented thinking and open dialogue between the decision-makers.

Tiina Pursula

Tiina Pursula is a leading consultant of Gaia in the areas of bio-based economy and sustainable production. Gaia offers a wide range of innovative solutions for sustainability in the area of bio-based economy. Our recent projects have focused on areas such as market and value chain analysis on sectors of bio-based economy, distributed bio energy production concepts and systems, corporate responsibility of companies in the bio-based economy value chain, carbon footprinting of bio-based products and scenarios of the future bio-based economy.