Building the circular economy

Industrial biotechnology can help make the economy of the future a circular one.

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The idea of a net-zero carbon emissions and zero waste economy isn’t as far-fetched as some may think. The promise of a bio-based economy is that we can grow raw materials for everyday products. Industrial biotechnology (IB) is one of the many faces of innovation in the life sciences world. It offers sustainable solutions to the environmental challenges facing us all.
 
IBioIC has over 120 member organisations, working across the UK and Europe to find innovative solutions to modern problems. Our industry members range from medical biotechnology companies working on protein production through to those developing green solutions in bioenergy and biofuel. The projects IBioIC helps deliver are as diverse as taking waste from shellfish and using it to develop biodegradable packaging, to fermenting sugar in bioprocesses for the production of pharmaceuticals.
 
Our purpose goes beyond growing the bioeconomy – it is our role to raise awareness of the benefits of transitioning to a greener future. This is essential if we are to meet the ambitious net-zero carbon target for 2050. For this to be economically viable, government must be proactive.
 
Repurposing waste products is a great use of IB. Some of our members have developed technology that can repurpose waste from industrial and agricultural processes. The sources and uses are wide-ranging, such as salmon feed that can be made from algae from whisky co-products. One industry’s waste is another’s gold, helping the growth of a circular economy.
 
As we have recently learned, supply chains are complex and too often fragile. In some sectors there is an over-reliance on imports. Reshoring supply chains is something that IB can also support. Taking ethanol production for fuel as an example: Scotland imports over 50 million litres annually to blend into petrol to reduce emissions. That ethanol comes entirely from outside the UK to the benefit of European producers – and demand will more than double soon as we introduce E10 petrol containing 10 per cent ethanol. Post-pandemic, we need to build security into key supply chains as part of a sustainable future.
 
The IBioIC is currently working with government, industry and academia to reintroduce sugar beet to Scotland. We can grow the crops, convert the sugar they contain, and ferment that sugar into ethanol all within 30 miles of Scotland’s chemical industry in Grangemouth. A sugar supply is the foundation of a bio-based manufacturing cluster in Scotland. We can future-proof our manufacturing industries as part of the post-Covid-19 green recovery by embracing scalable biotechnology, which will be just the start of a journey creating economic opportunities, from agriculture to high-value manufacturing.
 
However, difficulty for companies often arises in the jump from R&D to manufacturing. If we are going to grow our industry and meet environmental targets, we must incentivise companies to transition to manufacturing by supporting investment in manufacturing infrastructure. With the right infrastructure, policy and funding environment, we can build a successful bio-based economy that will provide solutions for our clean, low-carbon agenda. IB has a lot to offer in creating a sustainable bioeconomy equipped for the future, and innovation is key.

Mark Bustard is chief executive officer, and Ian Archer is technical director of the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) in Scotland.

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