Bioeconomy offers big promises for the future

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
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Back in 2014, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee concluded that government policies had resulted in stagnation rather than stimulation of the bioeconomy.

Ministers were accused of providing a “hodgepodge” of incentives. Someone needed to take responsibility, they concluded.

The new minister “should be a champion for waste as a resource and co-ordinate activities across government”, and “should ensure that a long-term [15-year] plan is produced to support the development of a high-value waste-based bioeconomy”.

Did we ever get one? I seem to recall something happened at BIS, which then became BEIS. But look through the department’s ministerial responsibilities
now and there is no mention of the bioeconomy.

Cast the net wider and Mark Garnier pops up, who is lead for the bioeconomy (or is it the bio- economy – the government chops and changes the spelling) at the government’s Department for International Trade.

However, if you’re looking for someone with high levels of propriety, perhaps it would be best to steer clear of Garnier, given he was accused of asking his assitant to buy sex toys just a few months ago.

So, where does that leave us in the UK? According to the Industrial Strategy published just two months ago: “We want UK businesses to lead the development of new markets in areas such as smart energy systems and the ‘bioeconomy’ – the use of renewable biological resources from land and sea to produce food, materials and energy.”

So there is the commitment to publish a new bioeconomy strategy in 2018, but that’s all there is so far. Given Europe’s focus on this bio-based arm to the economy, the UK government would do well to act quickly.

EU leads the way

Earlier this month I attended the first stakeholder forum for the Bio-Based Industries (BBI) in Brussels. It proved rather interesting. Did you know, for example, that the sector is worth €2.2 trillion and employs 18.3 million people across the European Union (the UK is the third-largest bioeconomy after Germany and France).

Biorefineries are popping up all over the place and alternatives are being produced for all kinds of products that to date have relied on fossil fuels.

PEF (polyethylene terephthalate), a bio-based alternative to PET, is one. “It’s the first example of a polymer that’s better than the petroleum-based ones,” said Tom van Aken, CEO at Avantium, which has developed the technology.

Stronger and thinner than its oil-based cousin, PEF also has improved barrier properties so the shelf-life of products can be extended. Backed by a €25m BBI subsidy, the company is part of a consortium developing a supply chain for FDCA (2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid), the building block for PEF. Coca- Cola and Danone have also invested in the company’s efforts.

Now comes the hard part, however. “You don’t just need the chemicals, you also need to get it to the consumer,” van Aken said. Success can depend on long-term investment, forward-thinking regulation and more pressure from consumers.

I got the impression the first two are gradually coming together to put Europe back on the bioeconomy map – with next year’s review of the bioeconomy strategy plugging existing gaps. But what about consumers?

During the morning’s presentations, they weren’t mentioned. Not once. It was an oversight picked up in the breakout group I’d been asked to report back to the conference on: ‘The value for Europe’s citizens – aligning economic and societal expectations and needs’.

According to recent research presented by the Bioways project, a third of consumers are “completely unaware” of what the bioeconomy is. There is a big misunderstanding of the terminology, said Susanna Albertini, MD at FVA, which is a partner in Bioways. “It’s a mess.”

To date there has been very little research into public perceptions of bio-based products, with the few academic studies I could find suggesting a general state of confusion. Researchers in the Netherlands quizzed 89 people from five EU countries (a fair-sized study in qualitative terms) and concluded that a large number of them had questions, felt uncertain or had “mixed feelings” regarding the whole thing.

They were positive and negative towards the concepts in almost equal measure. Bio-based or not, the products have to function as well as – and ideally better than - their fossil-fuelled counterparts. Some, like PEF, apparently can, but that still doesn’t mean people will lap them up.

People are wary that some of this could be a marketing gimmick and who could blame them? Look at what has happened with genetic modification and biofuels, for example, where the fallout from these technologies were not fully thought through.

Consumers are also suspicious of products not manufactured in the EU and those that are only part bio-based (such as Coca- Cola’s plant-based bottle).

This makes me wonder whether the first move should be to scrap the term ‘bio-based’. As one consumer said: “It [bio- based] is very strange. What does it mean?”

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