Is the circular bio-economy Australia’s key to new energy streams?

biofuel
A modern biofuel plant

By Steve Nicholson, Director of Sustainability, Solaris Paper

Consumption levels are reaching record highs and every current sign suggests that they are not going to slow down. By 2050, it’s expected there will be an extra two billion people inhabiting the planet and if consumption continues at its current rate, scientists predict that another three more earth-like planets will be needed to support our ever-growing consumption habits.

Traditional recycling and the circular economy, which have long been hailed as the answers to capturing and reinvesting the outputs of our consumption, serve an important purpose. However, in the context of our consumption, it’s clear that they no longer offer all the answers to overcoming the significant waste crisis that we face.

But not all is lost. A new kid on the block is emerging and it’s bringing with it a fresh outlook and new lease of sustainable life for the future. Welcome to the bio-economy.

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In technical speak, the European commission has defined the bio-economy as “the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy.”[ In layman’s terms, the bio-economy essentially sets out to achieve one core task – maintain the value, and therefore use, of products, materials and resources in the economy for as long as possible while improving the eco-efficiency of production processes.

Through the production of renewable biological resources such as bio-energy and bio-fuels, the bio-economy helps to reduce the amount of fossil fuels utilised to create products, with sectors including agriculture, fisheries, pulp and paper production and forestry already working towards a sustainable future through the implementation of practices within the bio-economy.[

It’s easy to see the benefits that this way of thinking will deliver from a consumer product consumption perspective, but the impact it will have stretches far beyond our homes. For example, by 2050, researchers believe that Australia could produce 200 per cent of its energy needs from renewables. This would not only transition the entire nation’s energy market to sustainable and environmentally friendly alternatives. But it would actually create a new green-energy export industry for the nation delivering environmental and economic benefits across the board. In theory, if the bio-economy was leveraged by state energy providers the amount of waste being shipped to landfill, currently at 180,000 tonnes in Victoria alone, would not only be significantly reduced, but generate energy that does not require fossil fuels. In the simplest terms, the bio-economy will generate renewable resources that reduces the need for carbon-intensive materials like fossil fuels. A prime example of waste-to-energy in practice is turning algae into fuel. Scientists in Utah are already experimenting with this and demonstrating that the naturally occurring organism that pulls CO2 from the atmosphere can actually also be grown to provide biofuels.

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In an Australian first, a Queensland oil refinery has also begun making biodiesel from old rubber car tyres]. The Gladstone oil refinery believe that they have found the solution to Australia’s tyre waste and fuel security problems, using an engine mechanism.  It is currently believed that it will see 10 to 20 million litres of diesel produced in the first trial at the end of this year. 

Whilst the process behind this may seem complex, the theory is simple, taking someone’s waste output and turning it into another’s fuel input. Australia is slowly moving in a positive direction with further plans to construct waste to energy plans in the pipeline. A facility that has been proposed in the regional Victorian town of Ballarat is estimated to use 60 per cent of the city’s waste and convert it to useable energy outputs. Similarly, a plant at Swanbank is predicted to be able to generate power for 50,000 homes.[ The considerable benefits that such facilities would provide for the nation’s bio-economy are clear.

There is no denying that we are at the start of our bio-economy journey. However, as the global snowball of consumption and waste gathers pace and increases in size and impact the time to follow the compelling scientific evidence around the bio-economy solution is now. The circular bio-economy is the way forward for a more sustainable, renewable and environmentally cautious nation – it kills two birds with one heap of garbage.