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Lords urge Government to tap into bioeconomy

A waste-based bioeconomy in the UK could be a £100bn opportunity and more should be done to remove barriers to its development, Lords concluded after an inquiry.

Lord Krebs

The science and technology select committee chaired by Lord Krebs (picture left) collected evidence from Government departments, academics and businesses to assess the potential of turning carbon-containing waste into high value products.

The inquiry report described carbon-containing wastes as food, agricultural and forest residues, plastics and waste gases from industrial processes or landfill sites.

It argued these could be turned into high value product such as chemical, gases and fuels, through processes like pyrolysis.

Lord Krebs said the evidence showed processes such as pyrolysis and gasification were more efficient than anaerobic digestion (see below).

The inquiry concluded that there was a lack of information on the amount of waste available and urged the Government to co-ordinate efforts to improve data collection.

However, it cautiously reported some of the estimates that were submitted as evidence. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) suggested the bioeconomy could have a total market of around £100bn, with transport biofuel accounting for £60bn of it.

The inquiry also heard that some £6bn of chemicals could be substituted by renewable chemicals produced from waste materials.

Dr Jim Philp, science and technology policy analyst for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, noted that this would create employment opportunities as happens overseas.

“For very job created in the business of chemistry in the US, 7.6 jobs are created in other sectors,” he said.

The Lords concluded: “There are promising signs that a waste-based bioeconomy could deliver substantial economic returns and support a considerable amount of jobs.

“While there is clearly uncertainty in these predictions, it seems however that there is a significant promise and the Government, industry and academia should take steps to further characterise this opportunity and ensure its full potential is realised.”

They argued Whitehall should do more to stimulate investments in the sector by reducing the risk of funding new technology.

“One of the most challenging, costly and risky stages of technology development is the scaling up of processes to the commercial scale,” they noted.

They recommended that the Government, through bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board, the Centre for Process Innovation, and the Green Investment Bank, increased support for the building of demonstration facilities.

The Government should also review the current incentive system. Solvert, a company specialising in the development of technology to produce renewable chemicals, said: “There are currently no incentives for the production of green chemicals and therefore most activity is towards the heavily incentivised energy from waste market.”

Similarly, the centre for Process Innovation said: “The current incentives to use wastes for energy production and the lack of incentives for high value chemical production, combined with long-term waste processing agreements distort the market and make it unattractive for significant investment in high value chemical production.”

British Airways noted the aviation sector was excluded from the incentive mechanism that applied to road transport fuels, such as the Renewable Transport Certificate scheme.

The Lords recommended that the Government, through BIS, reassessed the current approach of providing incentives to support specific sectors.

“The approach to the taxation and incentive structure should focus on providing policy stability, ameliorating market distortions and not inhibiting the extraction of high value from waste.”

Lord Krebs, chair of the Lords inquiry:

“The most obvious use of biological waste is either to incinerate it or to put it into anaerobic digestion (AD). We felt that neither of those is the optimal use.

“Our report highlights that we can extract more value out of waste by treating it more intelligently. For example we referred to evidence showing that AD is less efficient than pyrolysis or gasification for energy generation.

“Furthermore, it might be better not to use biological waste purely to generate energy, but to try to extract higher value chemicals or products.

“Let’s harvest the latest developments in biotechnology and use those to extract the maximum value from waste, so that waste is a resource to support the economy rather than an environmental problem.”

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