Whichever way you look at it, the very concept of biorefinery involves innovation: from the choice of production location – often in decommissioned industrial areas – to the type of raw materials, whether from specific supply chains or from waste use, from cultivation methods to at least partially renewable packaging.
Not only that. The whole production chain is drawn towards constantly searching new solutions to lower waste in the processes, to use incoming materials to the plant according to the “cascade” principle so as to extract in sequence all possible high added-value compounds and only at the very end, use the final by-products to recover energy and heat.
There is now a host of examples testifying the strong level of innovation in the production technologies of green chemistry: fragmentation through mechanical or microwave pre-treatment, fractionation through mechanical and physical (for example through steam explosion) or biological (enzymes) treatments, liquefaction through enzymatic or acid hydrolysis, hydrothermal (or not), catalytic (or not) liquefaction, slow (carbonization) or fast (flash) catalytic (or not) pyrolysis. All technologies developed over a relatively short period of time and specifically adapted to the development of the biobased industry.
Italy is amongst the most advanced countries in this sector, both for technologies and patents and for innovative products and abilities of smart purchases by consumers. Such formidable development is not accompanied by European regulations enabling the sector to grow or at least not to hinder it. It must be said, though, that in Europe, at least with previous Commissions, big steps forward have been taken and Member States have been spurred with innovative and progressive strategies. Sadly, the current Commission has largely abated such emphasis. Strategies such as “Lead markets: An Initiative for Europe” in 2007 or the “2009 Energy and Climate Package” or again “A Strategy for a Sustainable Bioeconomy for Europe” in 2012 have been extremely important measures to remove the veto to the development of the bioeconomy imposed by many lobbies still clinging to the past.
Italy already experienced a magic moment in 2006 when, thanks to an amendment of the then senator Francesco Ferrante to the 2007 Budget Law (n. 296/2006), the ban to sell non biodegradable and non compostable carrier bags was passed. In the same period many incentives were offered to the first supply chains of power production from distributed renewable sources. These are far-sighted laws, promoted with great determination against many obsolete industrial sectors, necessary to give the first stimulus to a whole sector, which is now boasting extremely competitive achievements and technologies. Some mistakes were made, but then the system was improved and things did work. One of them was the attempt to pass a decree on bio refineries, badly drawn up and useless, which certainly has not helped the sector. After that, nothing at all.
But now what stage are we at in Europe and Italy?
I will only mention briefly an issue, that of the so called by-products, because I deem it crucial especially in the light of the new directive on waste put forward by the European Commission within the EU strategy on the circular economy, called “the missing link”.
Despite Europe having openly expressed its will to reduce and reuse food and other kinds of waste, Italian laws for a correct classification of by-products are very ambiguous, and this has led to great difficulties for many production chains, causing in many cases even glaring implications for agricultural entrepreneurs.
The definition of by-product appears for the first time in terms of positive right in article 5 of the new directive 2008/98/CE. In short, a substance, in order to be defined as by-product, must properly derive from a production process where it is not the primary product; its reuse must be certain; it must not undergo any “treatment other than what is the normal industrial procedure”; and, lastly, its use must not harm the environment or humans in any way.
The most controversial aspect in such definition is precisely the principle of “normal industrial practice”, which is the root cause of many conflicting interpretations. Depending on the dominant interpretation, the classification of what is a by-product and what is not changes.
According to most legal experts, the treatments of the “normal industrial practice” can be defined as the set of operations or production phases characterizing a certain cycle of goods on the basis of a “well-established routine” in the specific sector. Such operations must not affect the identity, environmental and commodity-related qualities of the by-product. Such qualities do exist, by definition, from the very moment of its production (and therefore from an earlier stage). We are then in hot water.
Over the last few years the Ministry for the Environment tried to draw up two draft decrees, born under different governments – it seems that one is being assessed by the Prime Minister’ office – to assist the business sector with the use of by-products. But none of them shows an understanding of the importance of the concept of innovation, intrinsic to the criterion of biorefinery. The normal industrial practice, mentioned in the law, recognizes only the practice normally in use in the plant using the by-product and the operations allowed can only be identified with those the company normally carries out on the traditional raw materials. There are even more restrictive interpretations according to which any allowed potential treatment of the waste must never imply a transformation of the substance and object.
Unfortunately, even the new package of measures on the circular economy put forward by the European Commission and published in December 2015 does not detect this problem, despite the European strategy being “focussed on the promotion of the technologically-advanced circular economy able to use resources effectively.” Actually, it makes it worse because it removes the intervention by Member States, that will no longer have the opportunity to “adopt measure to set the criteria to meet in order for specific substances and objects to be considered by-products and not waste,” which was the legal tool the Ministry for the Environment used in its attempt. In practice, the Commission takes it upon itself.
This legislative short-sightedness collides directly with the concept of waste reuse, with the innovative criterion of the “cascade” use, with all those technologies used for extracting high added-value molecules with nothing of the normal industrial practice and that very often are the recent result of long and costly R&D processes. After a treatment with these new technologies, the by-products in a biorefinery are ready to be used in sequence in other interconnected plants, organized in an “industrial symbiosis” to be transformed in a wide range of bio-products.
Now, in the light of the regulation, every residue deriving from some processing could potentially be waste, since it will definitely be submitted to treatments other than the normal industrial practice. Such waste involves bureaucratic compliance, costs and very strong restrictions to its use.
Top image: illustration by Michela Lazzaroni