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

Waste or resource? Stimulating a bioeconomy

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.  There has been no shortage of studies into waste over recent years. Indeed, this Committee conducted an extensive inquiry into waste reduction in 2007-08.[3] The House of Lords EU Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Energy Sub-Committee will shortly report following an inquiry into food waste prevention. In our inquiry, however, we focused very specifically, not on preventing and reducing waste, but on exploring how unavoidable waste can be transformed into useful, high value products and contribute to a bioeconomy.

2.  The term bioeconomy has been widely used in international policy and has been defined in several different ways.[4] In this report, 'bioeconomy' describes the use of biological feedstocks,[5] or processes involving biotechnology, to generate economic outputs in the form of energy, materials or chemicals. The growth of a bioeconomy is underpinned by new technologies. This enables the use of a wider range of feedstocks, reducing dependence on non-renewable feedstocks, including fossil fuels.

3.  A bioeconomy can make use of a range of feedstocks, including crops grown specifically for this purpose. This inquiry, however, looked specifically at the use of carbon-containing wastes as a feedstock for a bioeconomy. Carbon-containing wastes include bio-waste or organic wastes such as food, agricultural and forest residues, as well as sewage sludge.[6] It also includes plastics and waste gases from industrial processes or landfill sites. In this report, the term 'waste' therefore refers to bio-waste, waste gases[7] and materials such as plastics that contain carbon.[8] For short-hand we refer to the waste-streams included in our investigation, which could be used as a resource, as 'carbon-containing waste.'

4.  We considered by-products and co-products as part of the inquiry. Co-products and by-products may be generated alongside the main product, but are not waste as they have an established use. An example of a co-product is spent grain from brewing where it is used as animal feed. Examples of by-products might be straw and tallow generated in food production, but this will depend on the market opportunity. Put simply:

"A waste is something that costs you money to have taken away, a by-product is more or less cash neutral to your business, and a co-product is something that contributes profit to profitability."[9]

5.  In some cases, new technologies will make it possible to divert by-products and co-products into higher value uses. Careful consideration must be given to the environmental impacts of diverting by-products and co-products from an existing use. In some cases, however, there will be both economic and environmental benefits. Using new technologies, wastes may become by-products and by-products become co-products.

6.  In terms of the legislative framework for waste policy, there are several EU Directives relating to waste that have been transposed into national legislation. The Waste Framework Directive[10] and the Landfill Directive[11] are most relevant to this inquiry. The Waste Framework Directive defines waste as any substance or object that the holder discards or intends to discard or is required to discard. Once classified as waste, a material must be handled according to specific rules to protect human health and the environment. The Government works with the Environment Agency to enforce regulation on waste to protect human health and the environment. The Waste Framework Directive sets out the requirement to manage waste in accordance with a 'waste hierarchy'. The hierarchy affords top priority to waste prevention, followed by preparing for re-use, then recycling, other types of recovery (including energy recovery), and last of all disposal (e.g. landfill).

7.  Government policy focuses on meeting the requirements of the EU Directives which are transposed into domestic law. Waste policy is devolved, meaning that each part of the UK is responsible for establishing its own policies. These are set out in Government Review of Waste Policy in England 2011,[12] Scotland's Zero Waste Plan,[13] Wales' Towards Zero Waste[14] and Northern Ireland's Delivering Resource Efficiency.[15] All four administrations provide funding to, and work with, the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP). WRAP is a not for profit, private company with responsibilities for delivering the UK governments' policies on waste and resource efficiency.

8.  The EU Waste Framework Directive sets a target that by 2020 50% of waste from households should be recycled. The EU Landfill Directive sets out measures to control and disincentivise the disposal of waste, requiring Member States to reduce landfill of biodegradable municipal waste. By 2016, the amount of biodegradable municipal waste sent to landfill should be reduced to 35% of the 1995 amounts. Historically, the UK has relied more heavily on landfill than many of its European counterparts. Although the UK is meeting its targets, it continues to lag behind some other European countries:

"Some Member States, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have virtually stopped using landfill to dispose of waste and now recycle, compost or incinerate all but a very small fraction of their household waste."[16]

Figure 1 shows that European countries which have successfully eliminated the landfill of all types of municipal waste treat their waste through a combination of incineration, recycling and composting.


Municipal waste treatment, Europe 2009

(Eurostat, 2011)Treatment of municipal waste (mixed waste, including biodegradable waste, produced by households and similar sources and collected by, or on behalf of, municipal authorities)

9.  Although the UK is sending more waste to landfill than some of its European neighbours, this may, perversely, represent an opportunity; the UK's current reliance on landfill means that there is a gap in the provision of infrastructure for handling waste. This could be a strength in enabling the future development of a high value bioeconomy—the UK needs to find ways of diverting carbon-containing waste from landfill and could achieve this by putting in place facilities and processes which extract maximum value from it. With this proposition in mind, we set out to try and answer the following questions:

·  Does it make economic sense to try to generate useful, high value products from carbon-containing wastes?

·  Does it make environmental sense?

·  What is the scale of the opportunity?

·  What are the barriers facing industry?

·  What is the Government's role?

10.  This report first of all sets the context for our analysis by describing the concept of a bioeconomy and establishing the sources of waste, the types of waste and how waste is treated in the UK. We then assess the economic and environmental opportunities at stake. Chapter 3 explores the key issues that need to be addressed to enable a high value waste-based bioeconomy to develop.

11.  Waste is a policy area rich in jargon and acronyms. What is more, it touches on a range of complex scientific processes. At the outset of this report, we hope the following box of explanatory terms is helpful.


Anaerobic digestion: AD is a natural process in which microorganisms break down organic matter (carbon-containing molecules), in the absence of oxygen, into biogas (a mixture of carbon dioxide [CO2] and methane [CH4]) and digestate (a nitrogen-rich residue, which can be used as fertiliser).[17]


·  Commodity chemicals are commercially produced in high tonnage quantities.

·  Fine chemicals are produced industrially in relatively small quantities and with a high purity; e.g. dyes and drugs.[18]

·  Speciality chemicals are made in very low quantities compared to commodity chemicals, are generally of high price, but have specific effects or properties not shared with others.

Fermentation: the biochemical pathway in which organic compounds are broken down enzymatically in the absence of oxygen.[19]

Gasification and pyrolysis: high temperature treatments of carbon containing waste, without allowing enough oxygen for complete combustion. Municipal waste, commercial and industrial waste and refuse derived fuel or solid recovered fuel can be used as feedstocks. Gasification uses temperatures of >700°C and a controlled amount of oxygen. Pyrolysis uses temperatures of around 500°C in the absence of oxygen. Products from these processes include syngas, oil and a solid residue or char.[20]

Refuse derived fuel: RDF is a crude fuel, subjected to low levels of treatment in order to ensure it is no longer classified as solid mixed waste, and to marginally improve its fuel status. It does not function as a fossil fuel replacement due to its low calorific value and variable composition.[21]

Solid recovered fuel: SRF is a refined fuel meeting a defined specification. Functions as a fossil-fuel replacement in many applications.[22]

Syngas: 'synthetic gas', produced by gasification and pyrolysis. Syngas typically contains carbon monoxide [CO], hydrogen [H2] and methane [CH4]. It can be purified to produce biomethane and hydrogen, or used as a feedstock to generate higher value products.

Synthetic biology: aims to design and engineer biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as redesigning existing, natural biological systems.[23]

12.  We would like to thank everyone who gave evidence to us, both at oral evidence sessions, which we held in the autumn of 2013 and early 2014, and in writing. We also wish to thank our Specialist Adviser, Mr Ian Shott CBE FREng, whose expertise assisted our work greatly.

3   House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, Waste Reduction, (6th Report of Session 2007-08, HL 163). Available online: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldselect/ ldsctech/163/163.pdf. Back

4   OECD (2009) The Bioeconomy to 2030: Designing a Policy Agenda; European Commission (2013) Innovating for Sustainable Growth: A Bioeconomy for Europe; The Whitehouse (2012) National Bioeconomy Blueprint; Federal Ministry for Research and Education (2011) National Research Strategy Bioeconomy 2030; Schmid et al. (2012) 'The Bio-Economy Concept and Knowledge Base in a Public Goods and Farmer Perspective'. Bio-based and Applied Economics 1(1): 47-63. Back

5   A feedstock is a raw material which can be used to supply a manufacturing process. Back

6   The 'Circular Economy' uses the term 'biological nutrients.' e.g. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2013) Towards the Circular Economy. Volume 1. Back

7   Other non-carbon containing gases, such as hydrogen, may also be used as feedstocks for a bioeconomy. Back

8   Although minerals such as calcium carbonate also contain carbon, we did not include them in the scope of our inquiry. Back

9   Q 83 (Professor Murphy). Back

10   See: https://www.gov.uk/waste-legislation-and-regulations. Back

11   See: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/environmental-permitting-guidance-the-landfill-directive. Back

12   See: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/69401/pb13540-waste-policy-review110614.pdf. Back

13   See: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/314168/0099749.pdf. Back

14   See: http://wales.gov.uk/docs/desh/publications/100621wastetowardszeroen.pdf. Back

15   See: http://www.doeni.gov.uk/wms_2013.pdf. Back

16   WRAP. Back

17   Defra (2011) Anaerobic Digestion Strategy and Action PlanBack

18   Oxford University Press (2008) Oxford Dictionary of ChemistryBack

19   Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. (1999) Chambers Dictionary of Science and Technology. Back

20   See: CIWM website http://www.ciwm.co.uk/CIWM/InformationCentre/AtoZ/GPages/Gasification.aspx; WRAP (2012) Energy From Waste Development Guidance; REA (2011) Energy from Waste, A Guide For Decision Makers; Star COLIBRI (2011) European Biorefinery Joint Strategic Research RoadmapBack

21   See: Environment Agency website http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk; Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (2013) Exporting OpportunityBack

22   European Recovered Fuel Organisation website http://erfo.info/SRF.67.0.html; Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (2013) Exporting OpportunityBack

23   The Royal Academy of Engineering (2009) Synthetic Biology: scope, applications and implicationsBack

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