Bio-based industry holds the key to circular economy

BBI Executive Director Philippe Mengal outlines the numerous ways in which Europe’s bio-based industries are impacting on society.

Bio-based industry holds the key to circular economy | Photo credit: Adobe Stock

Why are bio-based industries key to a sustainable European future?
By creating new, high-value products and components from renewable, sustainably-sourced biological raw materials such as sugar beet pulp, thistle seeds or other forms of organic ‘waste’, bio-based industries in many ways hold the keys to a circular economy and a greener, more sustainable growth. In these times of climate change, depleting oil stocks and rising energy demands, a better and more efficient use of Europe’s natural resources is not just advisable, but required.


What impact will they have for Europe and its citizens?
The advantages of the bio-based industries are many. By maximising the potential of our natural resources, they will allow us to decrease our dependence on petroleum and imports of fossil-based products. This in turn will contribute significantly to decarbonisation and help us meet European climate goals.

Also, by replacing traditional, petroleum- based plastics with bioplastics, we will be able to reduce the strain of plastic pollution on our planet: by 2030, we are aiming to replace at least 30 per cent of existing fossil-based products with sustainable and economically viable alternatives.


Already, bio-based industries are capable of delivering sustainable everyday products that are comparable, or even superior, in quality and price to their petroleum-based counterparts.

At the same time, the bio-based industries constitute a massive economic opportunity. By 2014, they already accounted for more than 3.3 million jobs in Europe and a turnover of over € 670bn. 

Through further investment in research, the development of a competitive infrastructure and the implementation of innovative technologies, another 400,000 highly skilled jobs could be created by 2020, increasing to 700,000 by 2030 - up to 80 per cent of which will be in rural areas. 

In addition, the production of sustainable feedstock will allow farmers across Europe to diversify and grow their income, gaining financial stability through the exploitation of traditionally low-value crops and marginal lands. This in turn will boost local economies via the revitalisation and re-industrialisation of rural and coastal areas.


What are the main challenges in developing a competitive, bio-based European industry?
Europe has always been at the forefront of science, innovation and the development of new technologies. When it comes to industrial biotechnology, some of our companies are world leaders.

Yet there is no such thing as a coherent, single bio-based industry. Instead, our bio-industries consist of a wide array of actors, from large companies and SMEs to academia and regional clusters, often working in isolation.

As for the construction of large-scale bio-refineries, central to the transformation of organic waste streams into new materials and components, Europe needs to promote itself as an attractive destination for investment, in order not to get left behind by the US, Brazil or China.

Additional challenges lie both in providing a secure and sustainable supply of biomass feedstock and in the optimising its conversion, the ultimate goal being ‘zero-waste’ bio-based operations.


Why is it crucial for Europe to take the lead in developing a bio-based economy?
Bio-based industries can deliver many environmental, economic and social benefits, helping us meet EU objectives in areas ranging from job creation to the circular economy and resource efficiency, as well as climate change, agricultural production diversification, rural and regional development. However, for Europe to reap those benefits and become a worldwide leader in all things bio-based, we must maximise our efforts in developing its potential today, rather than tomorrow.

It was with this ambition in mind that the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking was created; to connect key actors from different countries and sectors, promote research and innovation and encourage cross-sector collaboration, as well as create awareness and reach critical mass.

Only by reducing fragmentation and joining public and private forces can we further de-risk private investment, provide incentives for both sides to cooperate, and allow for the development of a competitive bio-based infrastructure. 

This, in turn, will lead to the creation of innovative technologies, new business models and greener everyday products. 

This strategy is now proving its worth: by the end of 2016, every euro invested by the EU was leveraging €2.6 of private investment - proof that bio-based industries are already actively boosting European economy, and creating sustainable value for its citizens.


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