NGOs advocate an economy in which all waste materials are reused (circular). Politicians argue for an economy in which energy is generated sustainably and locally (climate-neutral). Studies into roads made partly from bio-asphalt or green materials sourced from algae regularly make the news. Wageningen University & Research aims to give greater clarity and content to these popular concepts, and will specify the links between them.
The Dutch cabinet recently ratified the Paris Climate Convention, and sent a plan to the Parliament aimed at achieving a circular economy by 2050. The expectations for a circular economy are high, maybe even too high. “It is a utopia to think that we can reclaim and reuse all raw materials as there will always be losses,” says Louise Fresco, chairman of the Board of Wageningen University & Research. “But fact is that we should organise our production and consumption as efficiently as possible, and reuse non-utilised materials in the most practical and effective way.”
The term ‘Biobased Economy’ is more to the point, according to Fresco. “It means that we should use renewable resources wherever possible. Although many steps have been taken in this regard, we are still at the start of this promising development. Plants, algae, fungi and bacteria can provide many useful raw materials that can serve as resources for medicine, materials and fuel. We can apply biochemical conversions to raw materials, and we have knowledge of products from biomass, both food and non-food.”
A focal point of Wageningen University & Research’s 2015-2018 strategic plan lists five research themes focused on major world issues with a combination of fundamental and applied research. One of these issues is Resource Use Efficiency: the synthesis between the circular economy, a more climate-neutral society and the Biobased Economy. For this reason Wageningen University & Research will now be using the term ‘Circular & Biobased Economy’.
These are typical research themes for Wageningen, says Erik van Seventer, business unit manager at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. “For nearly a hundred years we have been learning about the cycles of carbon and minerals such as nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. Society has extracted carbon from the soil as fossil fuel and let it enter the atmosphere as CO2. We’ve taken the minerals from strongly concentrated mines and wasted them into the ocean in a diluted version.”
The sun as source
According to Van Seventer the Biobased Economy is an integral part of the circular economy: reusing as many materials as possible as long as possible, and making as many of these raw materials from vegetable origins. The task now is to close these cycles by reusing the minerals wherever possible and only using carbon from renewable sources instead of fossil sources. Food and animal feed, and increasingly chemicals and materials, can be made from renewable sources, or as Van Seventer explains: “The new economy will build on renewable raw materials: the sun is the source.” The plastic packaging around organic food is often already a bioplastic. In the short term both ‘petroleum plastic’ and bioplastic packaging will increasingly be recycled into new plastic products. An interesting issue is that solar electricity will become cheaper, Van Seventer adds. “As a result the often energy-intensive recycling process will become more successful as a business model.”
“The terms climate-neutral, circular and biobased can rely on approval from many layers of society,” says sociologist Gert Spaargaren from the Social Sciences Group. “This type of future has become matter-of-fact since the start of the century, and especially since the recent climate conference in Paris. This applies not only to trendy politicians in ‘climate-neutral’ Amsterdam, but also among policymakers, companies and consumers. The circular economy is even the guideline in China.”
Spaargaren indicates that the terms climate-neutral and circular are more easily communicated than ‘biobased’. “Biobased is somewhat abstract,” Spaargaren explains. He does expect the Wageningen Resource Use Efficiency programme to contribute to making the concept ‘biobased’ more concrete via ‘iconic projects’ which stimulate a dialogue with society. “We’re talking about interdisciplinary projects that, in addition to natural science and technology, are focused on social aspects and communication with society,” the sociologist explains. An example is reclaiming raw materials closer to the company or consumer.
There are pitfalls, however. The first generation of bio-fuels (made from maize and wheat on agricultural land) lost goodwill because they were seen as competing with food production – the well-known food-fuel-controversy – and were also less sustainable than initially thought.
Gert Spaargaren warns that inaccurate predictions of effectiveness and sustainability can also occur in biobased and circular themes if there is insufficient focus on social risk perception. “You can break down organic waste by feeding it to insects and gain protein in the process. But this could lead to an accumulation of heavy metals in the protein or as yet unknown bacterial pollution, and this is irrespective of the social resistance to eating insects – which are pretty tasteless in themselves.”
Spaargaren therefore suggests developing an indicator which maps such risks or undesirable side effects of the search for recycling and shorter chains in the food sector; a ‘resource-use assessment indicator’ as he calls it. According to Spaargaren, when developing these types of tools it is important to refrain from communicating with society after the fact – there should be a proactive instigation of dialogue with stakeholders. “Wageningen University & Research will address the relevant social networks directly. And not just social organisations such as the Consumentenbond (the Dutch consumers’ association) and Milieu Centraal (provider of information on sustainability to the public), but also the food industry, Unilever and supermarkets like Albert Heijn.”
System innovation without incidents
Louise Fresco agrees. “We have to continue carrying out research, training good technicians and experts, and cooperating with industry, NGOs and governments in a calm and self-assured way.” The university also shouldn’t forget its agricultural roots. “You can’t get away with using all the carbon for consumption purposes. A lot of ‘waste’ from agricultural production has to be reused to maintain or improve the soil structure and fertility. Aside from the complex technology required to extract these useful substances in an efficient way, there is also the matter of producing and breeding the organic material.”
It will be a long term process, according to Fresco. “The transition will be gradual with temporary setbacks as we will encounter unexpected side effects, or socio-economic developments will steer us a different way. Sometimes things will speed up, for example due to the further integration of online possibilities and communication. Because complex cohesive processes and long chains are involved, with a range of social and economic interests at stake, exact predictions cannot be made. System innovations are not realised from one day to the next – history has taught us that this can lead to incidents.”