If you've been following discussions about how New Zealand can move to a more sustainable model in the future, you've probably heard about a concept called a bioeconomy. What is it? And how would it work for Kiwis? Science reporter Jamie Morton asked Scion's chief innovation and science officer Dr Elspeth MacRae.
What is a bioeconomy? And how does this differ from a circular economy?
A successful bioeconomy is an innovative, low-emissions economy, created through the merging of sectors and industries to ensure a sustainable supply of food and substitution of everyday products, while maintaining biodiversity and environmental protection.
Both OECD and emerging nations are adopting the bioeconomy approach, which uses renewable resources from the land and sea, as well as waste, as inputs to food, industrial products and energy production.
The circular economy concept is intrinsically linked to the bioeconomy as the waste from one process becomes the feedstock for another.
Do we have one to any extent, currently?
New Zealand has a strong bioeconomy, but doesn't realise it. As New Zealanders, we naturally interact as a bioeconomy.
We have a temperate climate, plenty of land - relative to the number of people - water, strong biological sciences and a primary industry that, with some support, could add value to products and feed in to this type of economy.
We have access to significant marine resources due to our vast coastline, and we have large freshwater resources.
Are there any good examples overseas?
Both OECD and emerging nations are adopting the bioeconomy approach.
A tangible example is TreeToTextile, a joint venture between H&M Group, Inter IKEA group and innovator Lars Stiggson, and the aim is to develop new textile fibres using pulp from renewable and fully traceable wood from sustainably managed forests.
The product is being industrialised in Finland, where bio-based products represented almost one third of total exports in 2017.
Why is New Zealand well placed to have one?
We can grow renewable biological resources, like trees, very successfully and we have low productive land for such growing. We have a relative blank canvas for new industries, especially in regional New Zealand. Plus, we have proven R&D and innovation prowess.
Most of New Zealand's export earnings are derived from biology-based industries.
What might a future New Zealand bioeconomy look like?
There are so many directions that New Zealand could go. We could, if we wanted to, remove ourselves from the petroleum, non-renewable economy and very quickly enact bio-based solutions.
For aviation and shipping, we could invest in biofuel in a significant way, and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
Scion is leading the charge for the large-scale deployment of biofuels in New Zealand, and has developed a roadmap for us to get there that defines how to achieve large-scale production and use for heavy transport, shipping and aviation.
Scion is already developing bioplastics from wood-based sources and polymers from plants and waste.
For example, we could capture methane on dairy farms, and use it for energy, or for fuel for transport (including the trucks that take the milk to the factories). Dairy waste could be used to create plastics that are used on the farm.
We should be redesigning our cities and the urban environment using circular bioeconomy principles.
The oceans and seas offer huge potential in this area, through the use of fisheries discards, algal biorefineries, seaweed farming, zero waste and circular aquaculture and new products from jellyfish.
What are some specific examples of how certain products might be handled within one?
One of the biggest challenges in the circular and bioeconomy is the widespread use of single-use plastic for packaging and other functions.
Scion has developed a number of innovations that are made from a natural resource, or waste stream and many of Scion's products don't require a new infrastructure or 'drop in' solution
For example, Scion developed biodegradable clips for vineyard nets that protect the ripening grapes from birds. Millions of clips, typically made from polystyrene, are used every year by grape growers and end up scattered on the ground after use.
Scion's bio-clips contain bioplastic and wood waste with the intent of biodegradation of the clips in the vineyard.
What would it mean for your average consumer?
A circular bioeconomy would produce the next wave of innovation in products and services across a range of industries, health, agriculture, and energy.
It could transform the way manufacturing happens and how people consume over the next decades.
For New Zealand, having no large processing infrastructure compared to overseas, we can more easily adopt a distributed (versus centralised) manufacturing approach close to where the bioresources are.
As biosciences advance, it may be possible to address longstanding chronic disease patterns, lifestyle etc. In agriculture, bioscience developments could help provide food, and change the nature of food with more nutrients, and less chemical and pesticide use.
Has the Government shown any interest in developing one?
The Government has a number of initiatives underway that will help with the development of a circular bioeconomy such as the one billion trees programme, and the Zero Carbon Act, however we'd like to see the Government adopt a circular bioeconomy strategy, like countries overseas.
By the Numbers
• Regional bark biorefineries, which could convert wood waste into high value products, could earn NZ$400m to $600m per year, and contribute $1.8 billion to New Zealand's GDP.
• Regional bark biorefineries also have the potential to add several thousand new regional jobs by 2050.
• Only 50 countries have adopted a national bioeconomy strategy, and New Zealand isn't one of them.
• New Zealand's primary industry sector is a vital part of the economy and any potential circular bioeconomy, as it is responsible for over 78 per cent of our product exports.