Bioeconomy 101: Making rubber tyres from dandelions

©David Rooney

Moving beyond a petroleum-based economy is not just about choosing alternative sources of energy. It is about rethinking almost everything around us. The fleece you’re wearing, for example, is made from the same oil-based chemical as antifreeze or engine coolant. This is where green chemistry comes in. Advances in biotechnology are allowing us to manufacture fabrics, plastics, fuels and chemicals from bio-based resources using renewable resources.

Instead of oil feedstock, as in conventional manufacturing, plastic can be made from fermentation, rather like brewing beer. Bio-based latex car tyres can be made from dandelions and carpets from sugar. Right now we are still deeply dependent on petroleum products. But the idea of making chemicals in microorganism factories instead of oil refineries is taking off. This will mean a cleaner, more sustainable future for manufacturing.

A vision of bio-based manufacturing

Industrial biotechnology is starting to change the consumer goods we buy. Water bottles will soon be made partially or completely from bio-based carbon rather than fossil fuel-based plastic, for instance. Graphene is another key material of the future: it conducts electricity better than copper. Right now it is still expensive but a research group has perfected a simple process that turns soybean oil into graphene, which will make it ideal for consumer electronics. Extremely strong spider silk is another biotech invention. Though there are technical barriers to its production from a microorganism, they are now being overcome. Among the newer possible applications of spider silk are high-tech microphones in hearing aids and cell-phones.

What would a bio-based production system look like? Biorefineries make fuels, chemicals and electricity from residual organic biomass, and under certain conditions, also from food crops. This can range from expensive purified sugar to waste materials such as scrap lumber, manure, straw, or the organic domestic waste in your waste bin. By-products and side streams from biorefineries could, themselves, generate new industrial ecosystems in a more circular economy. In converting waste of different kinds into usable products, biotechnology would decrease landfill, reduce carbon footprints, and create a more resource-efficient economy.

It is likely that biorefineries will be small- to medium-scale facilities in rural or semi-rural areas with ready access to biomass materials. Such a biotech transition holds promise on several fronts, including local jobs, rural regeneration, smart specialisation, circular economy and reindustrialisation. It also fills in many of the blanks as to how to make progress on at least half of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Problems and roadblocks

Bio-based manufacturing can become a reality but many hurdles must be cleared first. For instance, increased demand for biomass may put pressure on land used to grow food crops, a concern that arose a few years ago when the production of biofuels accelerated. For the past decade, the OECD has been working on biomass sustainability issues, developing standards for international trade in biomass. In 2013, an OECD Recommendation was issued, encouraging members to develop and implement national frameworks for assessing the sustainability of bio-based products. It lists the considerations OECD member countries should take into account when making such assessments. It also recommends using life cycle analyses whenever possible; that is, the analysis of everything that goes into a biotech process such as fuel and raw materials, everything produced by the process including different wastes, and the environmental impact of both sides of the process.

There is also the issue of regulatory and technical barriers to a bioeconomy. While using waste for bio-production is resource-efficient and avoids land-use trade-offs, it requires regulatory changes. Right now, waste is predominantly defined as something that must be discarded rather than something to be re-used. Redefining waste would be an important step. In the technical realm, policies that encourage public research on and development subsidies for bio-based production are key. So would policies that smooth the way for public-private partnerships to build biorefineries, which are, as yet, high-risk investments. Politically, there is still too much support in many parts of the world for market-distorting fossil fuel subsidies. Carbon pricing and the removal of these subsidies would help us move on from fossil fuel dependence and on to cleaner, more effective, technologies instead.

The bioeconomy is an alternative to our current “take, make and dispose” way of doing things. Industrial biotechnology can replace petroleum, make use of wastes, and foster cleaner manufacturing. With the right policies in place, biotech could jumpstart a more circular economy and help us face the grand challenges of climate change, soil destruction, water and energy security, and resource scarcity.

References

OECD (2018), Meeting Policy Challenges for a Sustainable Bioeconomy, OECD Publishing, Paris, http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264292345-en

OECD (2013), Recommendation of the OECD Council on Assessing the Sustainability of Bio-based Products, OECD Publishing, Paris. https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/Instruments/ShowInstrumentView.aspx?InstrumentID=283&Lang=en&Book=False

©OECD Observer April 2018




Economic data

GDP growth: +0.6% Q2 2018 year-on-year
Consumer price inflation: 2.9% July 2018 annual
Trade: +2.7% exp, +3.0% imp, Q4 2017
Unemployment: 5.3% July 2018
Last update: 11 Sep 2018

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive paper editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • The new OECD Observer Crossword, with Myles Mellor. Try it online!
  • Watch the webcast of the final press conference of the OECD annual ministerial meeting 2018.
  • Listen to the "Robots are coming for our jobs" episode of The Guardian's "Chips with Everything podcast", in which The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott, and Jeremy Wyatt, a professor of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, and Jordan Erica Webber, freelance journalist, discuss the findings of the new OECD report "Automation, skills use and training". Listen here.
  • Do we really know the difference between right and wrong? Alison Taylor of BSR and Susan Hawley of Corruption Watch tell us why it matters to play by the rules. Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview here.
  • Has public decision-making been hijacked by a privileged few? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Stav Shaffir, MK (Zionist Union) Chair of the Knesset Committee on Transparency here.
  • Can a nudge help us make more ethical decisions? Watch the recording of our Facebook live interview with Saugatto Datta, managing director at ideas42 here.
  • Ambassador Aleksander Surdej, Permanent Representative of Poland to the OECD, was a guest on France 24’s English-language show “The Debate”, where he discussed French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
  • The fight against tax evasion is gaining further momentum as Barbados, Côte d’Ivoire, Jamaica, Malaysia, Panama and Tunisia signed the BEPS Multilateral Convention on 24 January, bringing the total number of signatories to 78. The Convention strengthens existing tax treaties and reduces opportunities for tax avoidance by multinational enterprises.
  • Rousseau
  • Do you trust your government? The OECD’s How's life 2017 report finds that only 38% of people in OECD countries trust their government. How can we improve our old "Social contract?" Read more.
  • Papers show “past coming back to haunt us”: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria tells Sky News that the so-called "Paradise Papers" show a past coming back to haunt us, but one which is now being dismantled. Please watch the video.
  • Globalisation’s many benefits have been unequally shared, and public policy has struggled to keep up with a rapidly-shifting world. The OECD is working alongside governments and international organisations to help improve and harness the gains while tackling the root causes of inequality, and ensuring a level playing field globally. Please watch.
  • Checking out the job situation with the OECD scoreboard of labour market performances: do you want to know how your country compares with neighbours and competitors on income levels or employment?
  • Trade is an important point of focus in today’s international economy. This video presents facts and statistics from OECD’s most recent publications on this topic.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.

Most Popular Articles

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2018