Over the last few months there has been increasingly intense debate brewing in the Brussels bubble on the topic of the “cascading use” of biomass. The source of much discussion is that, although the term itself is now familiar, finding its way into a growing number of policy proposals, including the European Parliament’s recent opinion on the circular economy, “cascading” can, and often does, mean very different things to different people.
Over the last few months there has been increasingly intense debate brewing in the Brussels bubble on the topic of the “cascading use” of biomass.
The source of much discussion is that, although the term itself is now familiar, finding its way into a growing number of policy proposals, including the European Parliament’s recent opinion on the circular economy, “cascading” can, and often does, mean very different things to different people.
The concept was initially developed by the wood sector. Here, the cascading principle is defined as: “A strategy for using raw materials or the products made from them in chronologically sequential steps as long, often and efficiently as possible for materials and only to recover energy from them at the end of the product life cycle”.
Indeed, this has more recently become a guiding principle for other sectors using biomass as their primary feedstock with the aim of ensuring development of a sustainable bioeconomy.
However, while this concept may be relevant and appropriate for some, many others strongly believe that the realities of the bioeconomy are too complex and diverse to apply such a principle transversally and indiscriminately. This is partly because the wood sector definition implies that the more times a product is used and can be recycled for another purpose, the more sustainable it is.
Undoubtedly this will make sense for some applications. However, this definition also implies that “single use” products are, therefore, inherently less sustainable. But following this logic many vital biobased products, which can only be used once, from food, to cosmetics to solvents and detergents, which offer important environmental, economic and consumer benefits, would not fulfill sustainability criteria as they cannot be recovered and reused. Hence the need to adopt a more flexible, case by case approach.
Of course, it is important that biomass is considered a valuable resource in the transition towards a circular economy and that many parameters need to be taken into account when assessing its use and the sustainability of products made from it. Indeed, a multitude of criteria, such as local economics, regional differences and specialisations, societal needs, existence of viable alternatives, etc. must also be considered in order to assess the most sustainable and efficient way to valorise the available biomass.
This is why the “smart and efficient” use of biomass should be the primary guiding principle enabling every biomass fraction to be valorised for food, feed, bio-based products and energy. It makes sense in terms of processing and production, also, since the corner stone of bio-based industries are biorefineries which focus on the sustainable processing of biomass into a broad spectrum of products including food, feed, chemicals, fuels and materials often from a single feedstock starting point. Indeed, biorefineries are sustainable by design, extracting the maximum value from biomass, optimising the use of individual fractions to deliver several end products. Naturally, this not only improves the economic viability of bio-based industries and their sustainability, but also optimizes the use of all biomass fractions in the process. The biorefinery model therefore exemplifies the smartest and most efficient use possible of the available renewables resources and will play an important role in the transition towards the “zero waste” circular economy that Europe is striving to create.
Finally, in the current debate on cascading use of biomass, some organisations increasingly confuse cascading use and the hierarchy of use. However, all bio-based products have their own value in the market place and therefore the theoretical concept of hierarchy of use of biomass is not adequate and cannot be translated into regulation.
Instead what is needed is a smart and efficient approach when it comes to valorising biomass. The cascading and hierarchy of use principle, as defined in the wood sector, cannot therefore be transversally and indiscriminately applied to all sectors using biomass as primary feedstock.
An EU policy framework for the smart and efficient use of biomass should take into account the reality of all industrial sectors and avoid creating unnecessary new barriers to the development and commercialisation of bio-based products in Europe. As bio-based products face the continued challenge of trying to win market share on a very un-level playing field, particularly when compared to fossil based products, the adoption of support measures for the development of biorefineries in Europe are needed.
If such measures can successfully address the barriers to fostering investments, facilitating the introduction of innovative bio-based products on the market and enabling access to sustainably sourced, competitively priced renewable feedstocks, Europe stands a fighting chance at reaping the rewards of this smart and efficient sector.