New Zealand is at a crossroads, a pivotal point in history where solutions must be found to stem the tide of eco-system collapse, fight climate change, provide for a growing population and find ways of consumption that respect the ecological boundaries of the planet. Now there is a real urgency to find innovative solutions, be bold, and live up to our reputation as the small country with big ideas.
If New Zealand is going to build a carbon neutral future in line with the climate objectives of the Paris Agreement, we need to develop a circular bioeconomy. There is some great stuff happening in this space here, but unfortunately we need to be doing much more, and with a greater of sense of urgency.
You’ve probably heard of the circular economy. This is an economic system aimed at minimising waste and making the most of resources. Currently, the traditional linear economy dominates; with a take, make and dispose model.
The bioeconomy is a term that is less well known, yet just as important. In our ‘Strategy to 2030’, Scion has defined the bioeconomy as encompassing the production of renewable biological resources, and their conversion into food, feed, biobased products and bioenergy via innovative and efficient technologies. When the waste from one process becomes the feedstock, or raw material, for another, we have a circular bioeconomy. And ultimately an end-of-life point is reached where the waste product biodegrades back to basic elements like water and carbon.
The incredible thing about New Zealand is that in some ways we already are a bioeconomy. While our overall land area is small, on a per capita basis, we have significantly more land resources compared to a large number of countries. We also have access to plentiful marine resources given our extensive coastline, and have significant freshwater resources.
A conundrum facing many countries is how to move to sustainable energy sources, and we have the advantage in that 80% of electricity generation is from renewable resources, including geothermal, wind, biomass and solar. Our primary sector contributes just over half of New Zealand’s total export earnings and pastoral farming dominates the agricultural landscape. We could, if we wanted to, remove ourselves from the petroleum, non-renewable economy and replace them with bio-based solutions, reasonably quickly, compared with other countries.
We have the R&D, innovation prowess, skills and scientific knowledge, and we are already working on bio-based solutions.
New Zealand’s bioeconomy has grown through areas such as genetic markers, livestock breeding programmes, and in new biomaterials, derived from plant-based materials and waste fibres and effluent from wood processing industries. For example, at Scion, we recently announced we are developing a bark biorefinery which will develop technologies to convert millions of tonnes of bark into high-value material and products such as biofuel, and water repelling polymers (used to make things like paper coffee cups, rainwear and touchscreen coating technology). Around 2.3 million tonnes of bark is produced annually by the New Zealand forest industry, and until now it has remained an underutilised resource.
A global example of the circular bioeconomy in action is TreeToTextile, a joint venture between H&M Group, Inter IKEA group and innovator Lars Stiggson, that aims to develop new textile fibres using pulp from renewable and fully traceable wood from sustainably managed forests. This production process uses less energy and chemicals, allowing for a much more sustainable and cost-efficient process compared to conventional technologies and fibres.
Finland-based pulp and paper manufacturer Stora Enso is going to support the industrialisation of TreeToTextile, through setting up a demonstration plant at one of its Nordic facilities. IKEA and H&M have signed on so they can use the fibre in their furniture and clothing products, but the aim is that the entire industry should benefit from this sustainable fibre since it can be used in conventional supply chains.
New Zealand also has new emerging livestock industries such as scampi, and a number of biotech companies have been created to develop and commercialise nutraceuticals. However, to realise our potential, and put us on a global competitive footing, New Zealand needs to put sustainability at the top of its agenda. If we had the right investment in systemic change across industries, we could be adding huge value to products, while protecting the environment and enhancing biodiversity.
There are so many directions that we could go. We could capture methane on dairy farms and use it for fuel (for the milk trucks that go back to the factories), or we could be using waste from the farms to make plastic. We could add value to products through the use of advanced technologies such as seaweed extracts for cosmetics, or deriving high value ingredients from milk. We could convert algae in to fuel, recycle plastic, convert waste in to new furniture or clothing – the possibilities are endless.
To kick New Zealand’s circular bioeconomy into action, we need the Government to put in place a visionary strategy, and make it a central part of policy decisions.
New Zealand is behind the eight-ball on this on the global stage. Sectors in the EU, Japan, and the US see the bioeconomy as a means to re-industrialise across many sectors on the basis of their leadership in the biosciences.
The EU is well down the path of forming a circular bioeconomy, with a strong strategic vision, and waste laws. For example, EU states are required to recycle at least 55% of their municipal waste by 2025, 60% by 2030, and 65% by 2035.
China wants to substitute fuels with renewable resources and Brazil is investing in the bioeconomy to capitalise on its vast biological resources. Over the next 20 years Brazil could have 120 biorefineries – plants that use biomass to produce biofuels, biochemicals and other bioproducts with high added value – which could generate around US$400 billion in investments, according to the Brazilian Industrial Biotechnology Association.
The New Zealand Government needs to co-invest with industry, and support our innovative entrepreneurs with the skills to make this concept a reality. We have relied on our primary dairy exports for too long, and now is the time for us to really shine as an innovative nation. We have the skills to make it happen, we just need to lose our risk adverseness, and preoccupation with short term thinking around cost inputs.
I would encourage local manufacturers to make circular design thinking their main focus, and get ahead of the game.
Elspeth MacRae is the Chief Innovation & Science Officer at the New Zealand Forest Research Institute (Scion), the Crown Research Institute for forestry, wood and biomaterial products.