Discussion about the circular economy tends to focus on recycling metals, minerals and petroleum-based plastics, as well as innovations that boost sustainability for companies and consumers. While that part is no doubt important, there’s a lesser discussed – but still vital – aspect of the circular economy that deserves just as much attention: the bioeconomy. 

What is the bioeconomy? 

Put simply, the bioeconomy is the production and  use of bio-based resources and biological processes in the development of products, such as trees for lumber, or plant fibers for clothing. It can also refer to agriculture, both of plants and the raising of livestock. Our economy is made up of different components, from service work to materials production and so on, and natural or ‘bio’ resources are another key piece. With this, the circular economy functions the same way as in other sectors: as a tool to find out how waste can be minimized and avoided in the use of bio resources toward promoting sustainability.  

This circularity can look different depending on the natural resource. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) outlines a great example of utilizing the circular bioeconomy in Nairobi, Kenya. In this large city, 9 out of 10 households use charcoal for cooking; in surrounding rural areas, cultivating charcoal for the city is essential to many livelihoods. Once the charcoal is used for cooking, there’s typically a pile of fine dust left behind in cooking areas. As CIFOR explains, that dust was found to be useful when mixed with a starch binding agent and turned into something known as ‘briquettes’, which can be used for fuel. The sale of briquettes is potentially lucrative for those who cultivate and sell charcoal, providing an opportunity to further support livelihoods with a product once considered waste.  

 While that’s an intricate example, the circular bioeconomy can be as simple as using table scraps to nourish a home garden. There are also implications for it on a larger scale with industrial agriculture and especially forestry, where there tends to be more unused bio-waste. 

Challenges with circularity in the bioeconomy 

As with other sectors, introducing circular strategies into the bioeconomy has its challenges. One of the main hurdles is ensuring protection of natural landscapes and biodiversity, as climate change impacts and resource extraction continue.  

In a paper for Frontiers in Sustainability, researchers Eric Tan and Patrick Lamers state that a sustainable bioeconomy goes far beyond switching fossil fuel resources with renewable ones: “It requires low-carbon energy inputs, sustainable supply chains, and promising disruptive conversion technologies for the sustainable transformation of renewable bioresources to high-value bio-based products, materials, and fuels.” 

The researchers also point out the importance of carbon sinks, which is a natural resource (such as a forest) that absorbs more carbon than it emits. Not only are carbon sinks key to reducing carbon in the atmosphere, but many experts believe they’re being underutilized in the fight against climate change. Significant efforts are required just to identify a carbon sink, and in a place like Canada, with delicate natural areas and a forestry-heavy economy, that could be crucial. 

Another potential roadblock to circularity in the bioeconomy may be our lack of infrastructure to manage, distribute, or dispose of bio-waste. We’ve written before about the challenges that come with composting, as many facilities across Canada and North America don’t always have the capacity to compost biodegradable items. If there’s a sudden shift in how bio-waste is used or reused, it may strain a system already struggling with capacity. 

Overall, the challenges with implementing circularity into the bioeconomy look similar to other spaces, in that it requires an urgent overhaul of our current system. 

Untapped potential 

Climate change advocates often state that shifting to sustainable methods doesn’t have to mean loss of economic growth, and in general, the same can be said for innovation in the bioeconomy.  

For example, the Canadian government has identified great economic potential in the forestry industry for the use of forest biomass (natural waste from recently-cut or dead trees). Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) has been tracking biomass in nationwide forests since 2009, and found that there’s ample opportunity to use it for the creation of biomaterials, such as wood fibre composites, green chemicals, or bioplastic. There is increasing demand for these products worldwide, and as recently as 2015, the NRCan found there could be billions in market potential. 

As we apply circular thinking and strategies in our economy and everyday lives, it’s important to include the bioecomony in research, debate, and large-scale innovation. Conservation is important, and utilizing bioresources sustainably should remain a top priority in the circular economy.