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Innovation, Waste-streams and the Circular Bioeconomy: Opportunity and Risk

As we celebrate the end of Circular Yorkshire month, I’d like to focus on some of the opportunities and risks that are offered by the circular bioeconomy. Globally we are increasingly focused on researching solutions to the challenges that threaten our future prosperity, including pandemics. Yorkshire is at the forefront of this work. And whilst other regions are at the cutting-edge of research, Yorkshire stands out for its vision and potential to implement these innovations at scale and thereby build a circular, biobased economy designed for planet, people and profit. After all, if cutting-edge research solutions are developed but not acted upon by implementing in the real world at scale, are they truly solutions?

At Circular Yorkshire, we know a core priority is a total overhaul of our attitudes and actions towards ‘waste’. Whilst our first step should always be to eliminate the production of waste wherever and whenever possible, the second step is to view waste as a feedstock. It is not a problem to dispose of, but an asset to exploit.

Food waste is key to transforming how we structure our business, industrial and household supply chains. York and Yorkshire’s leading role in the UK food processing industry means we have notable volumes available. Indeed, food waste was the topic of BioVale’s 2019 Circular Yorkshire Thoughtpiece. In 2020, it’s useful to highlight that waste-as-a-feedstock includes waste from a myriad of sources, such as agricultural production, water treatment, textiles/fashion, plastics, industrial gases, municipal solid waste (known as MSW which is household waste) as well as industrial processes.

What can be done with these waste-streams? Combined with chemistry, biology and engineering, the development of the industrial biotechnology toolkit means, broadly, we are constrained only by our imaginations. For example, businesses – multinational, national, small and start-ups – are working in Yorkshire to capture carbon dioxide; to convert the captured carbon dioxide into animal feed; to remove colour from plastics to facilitate their recycling; to convert difficult to handle MSW into usable fermentable pellets. Those are a few examples beyond the more frequently discussed Yorkshire innovation being applied to make chemicals, materials, novel proteins and biofuels/energy from food waste. And our Anaerobic Digestion (AD) ambition is not yet sated as we consider opportunities to use AD beyond generation of gas for power industrially, but also to benefit communities (Circular Malton) and by using the biomethane generated to manufacture chemicals.

When we partner with our neighbours in the Humber and Teesside, the emerging opportunities expand to include the large-scale recycling of plastics; incorporating circular principles and biotechnology with the chemicals industry; regional renewable energy; and emerging green hydrogen supply chains. Arguably, to optimise the value of our waste-streams, the renewable energy sector should enable us to use renewables to supply our energy, heat and power demands whilst reserving waste-streams for the production of ‘stuff’ i.e. chemicals, plastics and other materials.

Circular economy principles are driving much of the research, development and innovation in the bioeconomy. However, whilst the world class bioeconomy research being carried out at Yorkshire’s universities and private institutions does enable possibility, implementing new technologies must overcome notable barriers, especially when waste is the feedstock. The most daunting being the cost of collection and logistics to gather the waste; the fact waste is not as homogeneous as virgin raw materials; the economies of scale required when plants compete with fossil-driven counterparts; the regulations governing waste disposal and use; the investment needed to develop new technologies; market/consumer acceptance at viable price points; and the technical risk itself.

When ranking the risks associated with implementing industrial-scale innovation from most-likely to-derail-a-supply-chain to least-likely, technological risk is seen as being least-likely. Once technical innovation has been found to work at pilot/demonstration scales, engineering can usually resolve further technical risks. Where risks have emerged they are mostly connected to the ecosystem operating around the innovation rather than the innovation itself, for example the high fire risk associated with storing corn-stover as a feedstock for bioethanol production or the purification of the offtake chemicals produced by new enzymes. Hence, it is wise to widen thinking to the supporting infrastructure needed to operate any innovation at scale from the moment pilot-scale tests prove its potential.

Next in the risk stakes are those around market acceptance and penetration – will anyone buy the product? At a price that makes a profit? And at a scale the market demands and the innovation can deliver? But the ‘worst’ risks – those considered most-likely to turn viable innovation into non-viable – are regulatory risks. What can and cannot be done under current laws? The circular bioeconomy is hitting up against regulatory risks. Food and agricultural waste streams are subject to numerous rules not sufficiently agile to account for innovation, such as using insects to convert waste into useful products which then cannot be sold because they were created using particular wastefeedstocks. It is these risks we can work to minimise by pressing how much Yorkshire and the UK need nimble regulations that account for the big, circular picture – not only the aspect of the value chain the regulations directly concern – and promote innovation rather than stifle.

Yorkshire is the natural home for the UK’s circular bioeconomy and BioVale – as a Circular Yorkshire partner – is working with regional stakeholders to develop these opportunities and minimise these risks as we build new, circular best practices. So, join us and work with us.

Remember Circular Yorkshire is for life, not just for November!

Sarah Hickingbottom
BioVale CEO

This piece was originally published as a thoughtpiece on the York & North Yorkshire Local Enterprise website for Circular Yorkshire month.

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