Circular economy complements bioeconomy

Ali Harlin_edit

Combining the circular with the bioeconomy creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  Recycling is the key to ensuring sufficient biomass. Biomass provides us with a source of renewable raw materials in place of those based on our dwindling fossil resources.  

The objective of the bioeconomy is conversion to the use of renewable raw materials. The pay off will be seen in greater sustainability due to a smaller carbon footprint, or even carbon neutrality. However, there is concern about how to ensure that the related raw material streams are sufficient and suitable to replace fossil materials such as synthetic polymers. On the other hand, we could increase the overall amount of fibre materials by recycling wood pulp.

Recycling is traditionally associated with solving the waste problem. However, the core of the circular economy lies in using the molecule economy, which minimises the use of virgin atoms, to solve the problem of insufficient raw materials. But we also need to bear in mind that, due to wear, no material can be recycled endlessly.

The amount of cellulose pulp manufactured is around the same as that of synthetic polymers: around 240 million tonnes of wood pulp and a total of 350 million tonnes of various fossil polymers are produced each year. Wood pulp is recycled up to 3–4 times before its fibre length reduces to an unusable size. This means that the recycling of wood pulp markedly increases the amount of fibre material in use in comparison to fossil-based, polymer materials.

Recycling can reduce raw material costs

The fact that biomaterials are 20–50% more expensive is often mentioned as an obstacle to their commercialisation. These costs can be lowered through recycling, as in sectors such as the printed media and packaging industry. By using recycled materials, a manufacturer can avoid the costs associated with the fractionation of virgin materials.

The cumulative value creation of biomaterials is highly front-loaded compared to alternatives such as oil-based materials. Biomass is harvested and transported in consignments as dry goods, which are up to twice as expensive to process as liquid oil. In addition, the use of virgin biomaterials as raw materials creates side streams, which are not generated by recycled materials. This means that recycled materials need to be made more competitive compared to synthetic solutions.

Regulation aimed at increasing the use of, say, biofuels or the transport of biowaste to dumps promotes the inception of new recycling projects. Biofuel can even be made from the lowest-quality biomass. This can be achieved using either a thermal or biotechnology-based technique, although particularly large-scale industrial processes are required for the thermal approach. The fact that liquid fuel has much less added value than materials and, in particular, the products made from such materials provides good grounds for recycling and reusing biomaterials to the maximum.

Towards self-sufficiency in raw materials

Recycled materials would also improve the raw material self-sufficiency of industry in a world in which the prices and availability of virgin raw materials are variable. Greater recycling efficiency will create opportunities for new players and businesses. For example, in Finland alone the recycling of textiles, particularly cotton, would be equivalent to a reduction of3.5 billion kilos in carbon dioxide emissions. The Texjäte project by the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) demonstrates that, while re-use is more efficient than recycling, a combination of both is unbeatable.

 Ali Harlin

Research Professor

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