How circular are biobased products?
This is the second blog in a blog series on ‘Circular & Climate-neutral’. This research programme (KB-34) focuses on research that contributes simultaneously to circular and climate-positive food and non-food production systems. This blog is by Iris Vural Gürsel, Senior Scientist in Biobased Products at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research.
My interest in product production processes stems from my background in chemical technology. I’m particularly interested in biobased products, and in how we can extract the most value out of our use of biological resources. This ties in with one of the principles of the circular economy: the importance of reducing our dependence on untapped fossil fuels. Another principle is not to let valuable products go to waste through incineration or by letting them end up in landfill. Instead, we should be ensuring they get recycled, ideally without losing much of their value.
If we want to facilitate progress towards a circular economy, we need to be able to measure circularity. A variety of circular analysis tools have been developed over time, such as the Material Circularity Indicator tool produced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. These types of tools are used by companies to measure the circularity of material flows for their products. To date, the indicators for these tools have been applicable mainly to ‘technical’ products created out of non-renewable resources. They’re not specifically designed to assess the circularity of biobased products.
Requirements for indicators
The European Commission’s Bioeconomy Strategy emphasises how sustainability and circularity must lie at the heart of the European bioeconomy. That’s why we delved into this research topic as part of WUR’s Knowledge Base programme on the Circular and climate-neutral society. We answered two questions. First: are existing circularity indicators appropriate for biobased products? And second: do these existing indicators manage to capture the specific nature of biobased products? To be able to evaluate the existing indicators, we first had to define the circularity requirements for indicators. In part, these are indicators that refer to the ‘intrinsic circularity’ of the product.
From wood to beams to furniture to paper
One indicator relates to usefulness, which is about ensuring that products remain in use for as long as possible and that they retain as much value as possible. Wood, for example, can be turned into beams to be used in the construction industry. Those beams can later be reprocessed for other purposes such as furniture or different building materials. Less valuable material, such as wood offcuts, can be used to make paper. This can be recycled multiple times, or used as a raw material for valuable chemical components to make new products. Other indicators of intrinsic circularity include the proportion of renewable resources used in the product, how efficiently raw materials are used, and the closing of carbon and nutrient cycles.
Risk of hazardous substances
Indicators are also needed to determine the ‘impact of circularity’. These indicators reflect the costs or benefits of closing the loop. For example, we need indicators that measure the risk of hazardous substances accumulating in a recycled product, such as recycled paper containing chemicals that can be harmful when people are exposed to them.
Secondly, we need indicators to measure the impact of circularity on sustainability. This could pertain to the energy required to recover secondary raw materials, for instance, and the environmental impact of that energy. Determining the economic impact requires indicators that can provide an estimate of the market value of recycled material after it’s recovered. Those indicators would also help us determine whether it’s economically viable to recycle that material. And finally, we need to consider the impact on the welfare of workers, and the extent to which new employment opportunities might be generated.
The research and the analysis of existing indicators – set against these monitoring requirements – revealed that the existing indicators are indeed insufficient when it comes to measuring the circularity of biobased products. The most significant gaps we identified related to: the use of renewable raw materials in products; cascading; maintaining the quality of recycled materials; and nutrient recycling. Our project isn’t yet complete. We’re working on an assessment framework that can be used to address the gaps we’ve identified and analyse the performance of biobased products in terms of circularity. Such a framework would enable companies to reliably determine the circularity of their biobased products.
Not always the most sustainable solution
It’s equally important that policymakers get support to enable them to set appropriate targets and monitor progress. I want to stress that circularity isn’t necessarily always the most sustainable solution. Circularity assessments need to be complemented with sustainability assessments, encompassing environmental, economic and social dimensions. This type of holistic assessment paves the way for compromises to be discussed. In turn, this will enable us to make informed decisions about which circular activities should be prioritised for sustainable development.
Focus on quality and safety
Finally, I’d like to point out some of the challenges that biobased products face when it comes to adhering to the principles of the circular economy. The ‘re-use economy’ is still underdeveloped when it comes to things like collecting used wood and processing it into construction materials, paper and chemicals, for example. So there’s still considerable pressure on ecosystems to produce more wood rather than using previously used wood.
While governments do encourage recycling, it’s mainly focused on quantity rather than quality. As a result, a lot of recycled plastic can’t be re-used for its original purpose because the waste stream is simply too contaminated. We therefore need policies that will not only enhance the efficient functioning of markets for secondary products, but will also improve the quality and safety of recycling rather than just focusing on quantity.
More detailed information on the Knowledge Base programme ‘Towards a Circular and Climate-Neutral Society’ and its projects can be found on the following websites: