Recommendations to stimulate the biobased product sector

Posted in: biobased

The Biobased Products Expert Group has published a report on how to establish the sector in Europe, and criticises the EU's efforts thus far.

The 16th of November is Bioeconomy Policy day. To mark the occasion, the BBP EG (Biobased Product Expert Group) has published its guiding principles and recommendations for development of the biobased products sector.

The group, of which NNFCC is a member, consists of individuals from all along the biobased products value chain, from a wide variety of sectors, as well as those involved in research and policy themselves.

The EU has very ambitious aims with regard to economic development, seeking to lead the way with regards to growth, technological advancement, and sustainability. The report focuses on how biobased products within the bioeconomy can provide the EU with the opportunity to achieve those aims, and discusses the current barriers that exist and inhibit the growth of the bioeconomy. To that end, the report concludes with 8 recommendations for policy reform to stimulate the growth of the bioeconomy and the biobased product sector within it, namely

  • Better coordination of the future “updated” bioeconomy strategy and overall EU policy framework affecting the bioeconomy.
  • Improve access to financing for small, medium and large-scale bio-refinery projects.
  • Expansion of opportunities for using biomass for high value products, without compromising EU and global food needs.
  • Develop and implement robust methodologies, criteria, standards and certification schemes for assessing sustainability impact of bio-based products.
  • Increase investments in research for new, resource-efficient renewable alternatives to everyday fossil-carbon based products.
  • Implement market stimulation measures to enable a more competitive sustainable bioeconomy.
  • Invest in the development of tools (standards and labels) enabling bio-based products to be better evaluated by purchasers.
  • Use mandates and bans to create environmentally friendly innovation.

In 2012, the EU launched its bioeconomy strategy, with a focus on research, innovation, policy, and market development, and 2 years later founded the Bio-Based Industries Public-Private Partnership (BBI JU), wherein almost 4 billion euros was invested in biobased innovation, to help develop biobased markets in the EU. Both of these were positive steps for the EU bioeconomy, and it is estimated that the EU bioeconomy is now worth over 2 trillion euros, employing 18 million people and with an annual turnover of almost 700 billion euros.

The EU’s bioeconomy strategy has inspired many member states to develop their own bioeconomy strategies for use at home, but the BBP EG now argue that the EU-wide strategy is now out of date, and does take into account all the available opportunities for bioeconomy development.

In 2008, the European Commission also launched its Lead Market Initiative (LMI) for Biobased Products, which ended in 2011. The outcome was the establishment of 15 “priority recommendations” to advise policymakers on how to better integrate biobased products into the EU economy. The EU’s progress against these recommendations was also assessed by the BBP EG. The overall consensus was that the EU has largely failed to deliver on the recommendations. A common theme is that the issues have been discussed, but not actually resolved, nor any tangible change implemented. The only areas where satisfactory progress was deemed to have been made were the implementation of European and international standards for biobased products, which has seen many such standards developed, despite their not being adopted across the board, and in fostering the development of technological innovation, for which the BBI JU was highly praised, although its relative infancy was acknowledged. The other 13 recommendations were found to be unsatisfactorily met, which is a damning assessment of the EU’s approach to biobased products, with an apparent preference towards bioenergy and biofuels noted throughout the assessment. However, there is still ample opportunity for the EU to rectify this below-par performance in future, where biobased products are concerned.

The switch to biobased products makes a level of economic sense: the bioeconomy has greater economic scope than fossil fuels, in that it covers all sectors where fossil-fuels are involved, and also covers food and feed, where fossil-fuels aren’t. This isn’t to mention the greater variety of raw materials present in biomass feedstock: a greater array of complex polymers and chemicals that can be utilised, which often result in novel emergent properties of biobased products. There is also the renewability of biomass, compared to crude oil, which ideally should remain in the ground. Biomass can also be locally sourced within the EU, rather than having to import crude oil from elsewhere, often from much less politically stable parts of the world, meaning the supply of biomass is more secure. There is, however, the important concern that biomass must be sustainably sourced, and also needs to account for land-use: there still needs to be biomass available for food and feed, but advancements continue to be made in increasing the productivity of agriculture and forestry, which will naturally increase the amount of biomass available within the same amount of land-use.

One area that is highlighted in the report is public procurement: as shown by the US’ BioPreferred scheme, the use of biobased products in the public sector is an excellent method of stimulating innovation, but also of raising awareness of biobased products. With the number of available biobased equivalents to products, the number of biobased procurement opportunities is comparatively high. However, in Europe there appear to be several major barriers to biobased procurement. Most of these appear to be legal barriers, regarding the licensing of products, but there also appears to be an attitude problem among those in the public sector: a fear of disrupting the market by showing a preference for a particular biobased product, or an unwillingness to take risks, by sticking with what products are already utilised and known. This attitude is no doubt in part down to the public sector’s lack of resources for market research, meaning there is a certain level of uncertainty with any procurement. The BBP EG believes that financial support for biobased procurement could be the answer to this, which could help stimulate a commitment to biobased procurement. There is also the problem that procurement often comes with strict sustainability criteria attached, and this can be difficult for biobased producers to evidence, particularly if they are SMEs. It is common sense that an LCA is the best way of evidencing a product’s sustainability, as it covers every possible impact of a product, but these are very expensive and time consuming to produce, and could be seen as a luxury that SMEs cannot necessarily afford. Therein also lies a problem that a complete LCA is sometimes difficult or impossible to achieve for a biobased product, as the value chains are complex, and data is sometimes lacking. It is here that financial support would also be useful, allowing SMEs to overcome this financial hurdle, and also to provide resources to allow the information gaps to be filled.

Much is also often made of the link between the bioeconomy and the concept of circular economy, wherein products at the end-of-life are fed back as feedstock for new processes, thus “closing the resource loop”. The transition to a circular economy is an essential step toward Europe becoming a “zero waste” economy, and herein lies one of the bioeconomy’s key players: biorefineries. Biorefinery technology has developed at such a rate that it is now possible to produce many different products and materials using organic waste as a feedstock. Here, biobased products can also play a major role, with biobased plastics now developed to the point where plastic packaging can be degradable, allowing it to also be fed back into biowaste processes, without the risk associated with biowaste being contaminated with non-biological waste, which can ruin a process. The bioeconomy is also known for the way in which by-products are often utilised in side processing streams, thus continually minimising waste. The report argues that greater emphasis should be placed in policy and communications on the link between the bioeconomy and the (inherently more profitable) circular economy model, with the aim of stimulating greater market interest in the bioeconomy, as the level of investment and innovation still pales in comparison to the support given for fossil-based industry.

The policy recommendations made by the BBP EG centre on the stimulation of uptake of biobased products in European markets, and around reducing financial and bureaucratic barriers that impede bioeconomy development. Currently, there is a lot of funding available for biobased development, but it is split over many different organisations, each with their own application processes and requirements, making it a logistical nightmare for biobased projects to access this available funding. The report recommends either the introduction of a “task force” who would be responsible for guiding bioeconomy projects through the funding labyrinth, particularly SMEs, who may lack the manpower/resources to navigate the funding process themselves; or the pooling of the funding under one umbrella, thus making it easier to access. It is also recommended that the methodology for sustainability assessment of biobased products be overhauled, with the introduction of standards and labelling in order to ensure purchasers can be clear about the impact of what they are buying. There also needs to be a robust LCA methodology, ensuring that the benefits of performing an LCA always outweigh the costs, and also to develop LCA methodology that account for future development of products, wherein their impacts may change.

Market uptake can be stimulated by raising awareness of biobased products, although the report argues that this should focus not on the biobased nature of these products, but on the aforementioned novel functionality they can offer. Communication also needs to be undertaken to identify potential new markets for biobased products to exploit, and governments can support the uptake of biobased products through procurement, and through mandates and bans, which can be easy for governments to justify, given the improved functionality of biobased products. Such mandates and bans would require time to take effect, however, as biobased products are not yet widespread on the market.

Continued effort needs to be made to ascertain the availability of biomass feedstock, including analysis into changing consumer attitudes across the bioeconomy, which will offer insight into future availability of biomass – currently the EU has 15% of the world’s biomass, which the report says could double if side streams are properly utilised.

Overall, the assessment is an optimistic one: there is a massive opportunity available for the bioeconomy, and with the correct political guidance, this could allow for the bioeconomy to bloom, hugely benefitting Europe as a whole. The key tenet of the report is that, in order for it to successfully reach its potential, the EU’s bioeconomy strategy needs a reform, rather than just a review. It was due the latter this year, and it remains to be seen if it will get the former.

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This article was written by Bob Horton, Research Analyst at NNFCC. To access the full report, please click here.

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