Bioeconomies aim to become a beating heart of local communities, both rural and urban
As the EU aims to head towards a sustainable, low-carbon future, experts in bio-based industries at the forefront of this transition are turning food waste and waste-water sludge into bioplastics and converting decommissioned factories into new biorefineries by working with local populations.
According to figures cited in renewed EU plans for a circular bioeconomy, biobased industries, which currently account for 8% of the EU's workforce, could create one million new green jobs by 2030. Projects in this area could stimulate local communities from both an economic and environmental perspective. They could also be key to uniting communities behind challenges like cutting down on plastics, which gained traction with the European Parliament last week moving to ban throw-away plastics.
Firms such as Novamont in Italy are using renewable resources to develop bioplastics and biochemicals, through the use of biorefineries. This also brings benefits to the local communities and agricultural sector by enlisting local workers and skills, partnerships with farmers, and raw materials such as waste and low-input crops from marginal lands.
Territorial regeneration is a 'cornerstone' of this model, says Giulia Gregori, head of strategic planning at Novamont. 'Integrated biorefineries are the heart of the bioeconomy and have a positive impact on the local job market.'
Apart from building new facilities, Novamont turns decommissioned industrial sites into biorefineries, thus rejuvenating existing resources that may be a burden on local economies. One such site that is reaping benefits was an abandoned refinery in the Veneto region of Italy. The refinery, which opened as a plant in 2016, can produce 30,000 tonnes per year of low-impact bio-butanediol, a precursor of substances such as bioplastics and solvents. Aside from creating jobs, the associated CO2 savings of around 60% are helping achieve a 'low-carbon' society, says Gregori.
In total, Novamont has invested €500 million in building plants and converting six abandoned ones.
'This has made us capable of delivering products to the market from biodegradable and compostable plastics to bioherbicides, and from biolubricants to cosmetic ingredients,' Gregori said. Some 1,000 people worked on construction, plus a further 2,600 direct and indirect jobs have been created.
Novamont is also leading an EU project called FIRST2RUN, which aims to harness underused oil crops such as cardoon, or artichoke thistle, in marginal lands to extract vegetable oils as building blocks for bioplastics, biolubricants and cosmetics.
This closely involves local farmers, who are harvesting cardoon in Sardinia, while a cooperation model has been established with Italian farmers' association Coldiretti. On top of that, an old petrochemical site in the Sardinian city of Porto Torres has been converted into a biorefinery.
'Positive impacts on the local economy are being generated both in the agricultural and industrial sector,' Gregori said. She estimates that every 1,000 tonnes of bioplastics produced can create 100 new positions. 'This sector (among others related to the bioeconomy) could represent an important driver for Europe's reindustrialisation,' she said.
But despite the benefits, there are also urgent challenges to address, such as the hundreds of millions of euros needed to open and run plants, says Gregori.
'Building biorefineries is essential for scaling up production, but integrated biorefineries represent a capital-intensive investment. Thus it is necessary to create synergies among financial instruments and additional instruments such as loan guarantees.'
Another project, RES URBIS, focuses on converting a variety of urban biowaste, such as food waste and sludge from urban waste-water treatment, into bioplastics for packaging, consumer products such as electronics and furniture, and groundwater remediation.
'Technologically, after 18 months, we've begun to achieve a material that has stability, a suitable transparency and characteristics that enable it to be run through a machine to be shaped,' said David Newman, managing director at project partner the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association.
While this is only small-scale for now, Newman hopes that by the time the project concludes at the end of 2019, the potential is demonstrated for this process to work financially at larger scale in a way that a market could be created. That might then spark 'whole new innovation', he said.
The project is also exploring different settings in the EU with various sizes and types of populations, economies and infrastructure to see how it might work in divergent contexts and how people might be affected. The project has looked at cities such as Barcelona in Spain, Cardiff in Wales, and Trento in Italy.
'You try to get these different viewpoints and understanding of the social and economic context so that it can work in different places,' said Newman.
He pointed out that a big bonus in treating waste with negative value is that it can actually create a return for communities. With EU regulation requiring separate biowaste collection by 2023, this could also be important to both provide economic benefit to offset the costs of collecting waste and create a cleaner urban landscape.
'The problem with treating this stuff is that it costs a lot of money. If you can actually find a way to produce bioplastics easily, then you can really stimulate the whole value chain,' Newman said.
There are various issues to solve first. These include eradicating certain impurities to make the bioplastics more see-through and accounting for seasonal food waste changes – for example, more watermelon and fish in summer and more vegetables in the winter. Plus, there are regulatory and ethical considerations – for instance, what should be done if the food waste contains meat that could be considered unacceptable by vegetarians or religious groups?
If the case can be proved, RES URBIS believes this system will be usable in waste management systems for urban areas with more than 500,000 inhabitants. Newman said it was too early to say whether the impact could include stimulating local economies, although one of the project partners is starting to model this.
Nevertheless, it seems that these kinds of effort are addressing some of the key interconnected issues of our time that need local communities to work together for solutions.
'This type of research in our part of the world is essential because it changes the paradigm of food waste,' said Newman. 'You've got climate change, you've got food waste, you've got plastics, and they're all connected. The whole thing is a circular movement.'