Five questions about biomass in the circular economy in 2050

April 8, 2022

The coalition agreement has articulated impressive ambitions for accelerating the transition to a circular and bio-based economy. But what does this mean for agriculture and our day-to-day lives? And how will it help in addressing climate challenges? We put these questions to Edwin Hamoen, programme manager Biorefinery at Wageningen University & Research.

In the future, everyday products like carrier bags, clothing, paints, packaging and construction materials will be made from bio-based raw materials*, according to Edwin Hamoen. “The energy transition is making this switch to bio-based raw materials more urgent than many people realise. The transition to renewable energy sources is reducing the availability of crude oil in particular as a raw material for products, and this is indeed necessary as part of efforts to combat climate change. So we urgently need alternative raw materials. And it’s worth noting that the use of bio-based raw materials means that CO2 – a greenhouse gas – remains captured in products over the long term. The biomass is not burnt in the open air or left to rot, which would then release lots of CO2 into the atmosphere.”

Will we still be able to manufacture all the same products and materials in future if we can no longer use oil and gas to do so?

“Fortunately yes, we will, but we will need to draw on a variety of resources. To start with, we need to be smart about how we recycle and re-use existing materials. Front-loading these considerations into the design process will optimise our ability to do so. But it won’t be enough on its own. We also need to start using bio-based raw materials much more. Like crude oil, bio-based raw materials aren’t easily transformed into the products that we use in our daily lives. It requires some simple and some more complicated production processes, just like the petrochemical processes based on crude oil that have been developed over the past century. But for bio-based raw materials you need a different system, different infrastructure, different supply chains and different technologies too. Wageningen University & Research has been working on these for more than 30 years. And while the basic knowledge has been developed and the first examples have been put on the market, we’re still facing some major challenges. For example, if bio-based raw materials can only be harvested once a year, how do we ensure a year-round supply? How do ensure that they cost about the same as
their fossil based variants? And how do you endow plant-based raw materials with the same functionalities as their fossil-based counterparts? The great thing about bio-based raw materials is that nature has already done that for us to
a large extend. It’s up to us to optimise the benefits in such a way that doesn’t then harm nature itself.”

So it won’t be enough just to recycle and re-use?

No, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency recently ran the numbers on this. Recycling and re-use is important, but we also need new bio-based raw materials. And in the long-term, we also need to start using CO2 as a raw material. Studies by Wageningen University & Research and Germany’s NOVA Institute have shown that by 2050, our materials need to be based on a mix of these three sources. There’s simply not enough of each of those three sources alone to fully meet our growing demand for materials. We refer to this as the material transition.”

What needs to happen for us to transition from fossil to bio-based raw materials for our products?

“Lots of things. It’s really a system change, because in future our products will no longer be derived from petrochemicals. Instead, they’ll come from agriculture, from livestock farming, from the sea and from landscape management. We need to develop new processes for turning plant-based materials into the products we need, while also ensuring that those products meet quality, safety and functionality standards, and all at the right price, of course. We’re all familiar with biodegradable plastic bags and Coca Cola’s ‘plant bottle’, but the range of plant-based products currently available is still only a fraction of what we need. We also need to grow enough bio-based raw materials without jeopardising the food supply, forests, nature and biodiversity. This is perfectly possible: if all the preconditions are embedded in the development process from the start, these various objectives can actually reinforce each other. Finally, as a society we need to be open to this material transition across the whole chain from agriculture to logistics, production, retailing and consumption. There’s a role for the government too. At present, laws, regulations and funding are still almost entirely geared towards fossil fuels. That really needs to change.”

What does this mean for agriculture?

“For agriculture this transition is actually a huge opportunity, rather than a threat. The sector will start growing crops for a whole range of applications in addition to food. In many cases, crop by-products will also be used. These will include maize stems, the leaves and pulp of sugar beets and tomato plant stems. This is all biomass which currently rots away and enters the atmosphere as CO2, even though it’s full of valuable components which could replace fossil resources. So in short, new opportunities and revenue models will emerge for farmers. But agriculture will be more than just a supplier of raw materials. By separating by-products, farmers will be much better able to meet their own needs in terms of fertilisers, healthy soils and animal feed. The minerals from by-products will be applied to the land at the right moment in the spring season. And potato and pea foliage won’t be left to rot on the land and become a breeding ground for moulds and diseases; instead, this organic material will be processed into something that contributes to the soil’s organic matter.”

Looking ahead to 2050, which of our day-to-day products will be circular and bio-based?

By then, almost all of the products we see around us will no longer be produced using crude oil and natural gas. Instead, they will be based on the three sources I’ve mentioned: bio-based raw materials, re-used existing materials, and CO2. After they’ve been used, those products will act as raw materials for subsequent products. These products will include not just plastic bottles and bags, but also products such as clothing, furniture, detergents, flower pots, packaging, construction materials, cables, guttering and car tyres. All of these will be circular products, free of fossil fuels, and they will still be of the quality we expect but with a positive impact on our climate and environment.”

* Bio-based raw materials (also known as biomass) refers to all plant-based and animal-based products, such as grass, trees, animals, seaweed, agricultural products, manure and by-products from food production and the catering industry.