Waste or resource? Stimulating a bioeconomy - Science and Technology Committee Contents


The UK produces almost 300 million tonnes of waste every year.[1] This tonnage is roughly equivalent to that of 200 million cars, over six times the total number of cars in the UK. Waste takes many forms, from household food, to building materials, to gases emitted from factory chimneys. Waste is managed in accordance with a 'waste hierarchy' which prioritises waste prevention, followed by re-use, recycling, recovery and disposal. Much of the household waste produced in the UK is still put into landfill or incinerated (57%).[2] While preventing the creation of waste in the first place is a laudable policy goal, it is inevitable that there will always be waste—or unavoidable by-products—such as orange peel, coffee grounds or waste gas from factories and power stations.

Science and technology can be deployed in order to transform certain kinds of waste into useful and valuable products. These include lower value products such as heat and power through to chemicals, pharmaceuticals, fragrances, bio-plastics and aviation fuels of higher value. This inquiry investigated the science and technology underpinning the transformation of carbon-containing waste into useful and high value products, and assessed the economic and environmental opportunities for the UK, the potential scale of this bioeconomy and the role of Government. It is important to note, however, that some waste has valid existing uses and should not necessarily be diverted into a high value bioeconomy; the spreading of manure to land, for example, is an important way of returning nutrients to the soil.

We conclude that the economic and environmental opportunities presented by exploiting carbon-containing waste as a resource and feedstock are substantial. Companies in the UK are already starting to exploit carbon-containing waste as a resource. We heard, however, that measures could be taken both to remove barriers and to facilitate the growth of this industry. The Government, we conclude, is not sufficiently seized of the potential economic prize for the UK. Waste policy is often framed in environmental terms, and while we do not diminish environmental considerations, it is the considerable economic benefits that we stress in this report. The crucial point is that environmental and economic imperatives need not be seen to be in conflict.

We argue in this report that a clear, long-term strategy and stable policy environment is needed to encourage and stimulate the waste-based bioeconomy. There is a lack of a clear lead within Government, with responsibilities spread across several Government departments, and inadequate coordination and cohesion. We therefore recommend that a Minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is given responsibility for the development of a waste-based, high value bioeconomy. The Minister should be a champion for waste as a resource and should coordinate activities across Government. He or she should ensure that a long-term plan, with at least a 15 year horizon, is produced in order to support the development of a high value waste-based bioeconomy.

To this end, we heard evidence that access to waste resources must be improved. This includes ensuring waste is collected and treated in a way that maximises its value as a resource. Furthermore, action is required to enable far greater understanding of waste streams so that potential investors can easily obtain a clear picture of how waste can be located and used efficiently.

Reducing the risk of investment in this emerging industry is also essential. Pre-market demonstration facilities are crucial in this regard, and open access facilities have been installed in the High Value Manufacturing Catapult in Teesside over the last two to four years. The Government should, however, regularly review whether the UK has sufficient facilities to support scale up and commercialisation.

1   Total waste managed in the UK in 2010 was 286 million tonnes (Defra). Back

2   Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). Back

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