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The key to unlocking an effective circular bioeconomy

Associate Professor Bernadette McCabe, Principal Scientist with the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture, reflects on the role of bioenergy within a circular economy in Australia.

The role of bioenergy within a Circular BioEconomy is starting to generate interest in Australia but we need effective waste management strategies to support this.

The underpinning premise of a circular economy, where resources are kept within the economy for as long as possible and waste is eliminated, is not new. However, there are a number of challenges faced by the global bioenergy sector as it transitions from a linear economy to a circular one. The complexity is even greater when you consider the array of wastes which can be categorised as:

  • primary residues – such as agricultural or forestry residues
  • secondary residues from industrial processing
  • tertiary residues including post-consumer residues like food waste

Australia faces some unique challenges in this area but with this comes opportunities. While international strategies differ there are a few recurring themes. So what steps are required to go from a waste-oriented society to a Circular Economy that includes BioEconomy and biorefining?

Firstly, we need an analysis of the type (primary, secondary and tertiary), scale and dynamics of wastes to understand what feedstocks are available. We need to get a good understanding of our current baseline in order to identify opportunities. We also need to understand how they differ from region to region.

From theory to practice

We need to assess the technologies deployed in our current management of waste, including landfilling, thermal conversion and biochemical conversion. This includes the level of deployment and how efficient and effective they are at converting waste in order that it remains in the economy as long as possible.

The leap from theoretical and applied research to commercial operation can be a major obstacle for any developing technology or industry. Countries with dedicated BioEconomy research activities often have mechanisms to enable the transition from research to practice.

Knowledge sharing and supply chain connection

Knowledge exchange and capacity building is critical. The BioEconomy is complex – therefore we need to engage our existing networks and integrate them to build new ones. The exchange of knowledge of different kinds and from different forums is one way of doing this. A good start could be to team up bioenergy and waste management.

Australia is a big country. The dispersed location and availability of wastes, together with the necessary processing industries and supply logistics are a limiting factor. Therefore, there needs to be a greater connection between organisations, industries and sections of the supply chain to enable resource and infrastructure sharing. Industrial symbiosis is an area open for further exploration which should build on some early work. The potential lies in multiple industries to develop as part of a production chain where one industry’s waste can be used as raw material for another.

Equally important is the interaction on an international front. Australia currently participates in a total of five tasks of the International Energy Agency’s Bioenergy program supported by Bioenergy Australia and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) funding from its Emerging Renewables Program. These Tasks span the areas of climate change, biogas, advanced liquid fuels, biorefining and biomass. This type of knowledge sharing maximises the potential for the wider bioenergy and related waste industries and research community to learn and benefit from bioenergy activities within Australia and also from the interaction with leading international experts.

To read more, see 58 of Issue 11.