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Regenerative thinking meets circular economy in the bioeconomy

Corporate strategies for preserving biodiversity and embracing the circular economy can sometimes be one step removed from (and even in conflict with) each other.

Road in the middle of a field

From bioplastics to mushroom leather, the bioeconomy replaces materials from unrenewable sources, especially fossil-fuel based plastics, with bio-based ones. But a combination of circular economy processes and regenerative thinking brings the bioeconomy past just bio-based plastics and alternative leathers. 

"In this new economic and industrial paradigm, it’s the use of agriculture, forestry and aquatic resources to replace the chemicals, materials, and energy that is needed by society," said Liz Corbin, research director at circular economy consulting company Metabolic, during a session last week at Circularity 21.

Yet that need for natural resources to replace fossil fuel-based materials adds to increasing competition across food, fuel, fiber and material for these finite resources. As a result, corporate strategies for preserving biodiversity and embracing the circular economy sometimes can be one step removed from (and even in conflict with) each other.

As Corbin continued, "One of the major challenges that we have to face now is that our bioeconomy is not mimicking natural systems in the way that it should." Meaning that the regenerative element key to the bioeconomy is left out when resources are not replaced at the rate that they are taken. 

Addressing part of the problem of over-extraction will be solved by improving metrics and creating standardized approaches that help companies and governments gather data, such as the Science Based Targets Initiative, as brought up by Jim Goddin, circular economy director at New Zealand based consulting company thinkstep-anz. 

One of the major challenges that we have to face now is that our bioeconomy is not mimicking natural systems in the way that it should.

The problem also can be addressed by bringing circular design into the bioeconomy, especially around creative ways to use untapped supplies of waste and avoid the need for new resource extraction, as explained by Corbin. This includes using massive amounts of unavoidable food waste (such as coffee grounds or fruit peels) to create new materials, such as fertilizers. Other examples include redeploying "waste" from existing industrial processes, such as capturing methane emissions for the creation of new polymers. 

As an example of how the bioeconomy is being translated into practice at a major company, Dell Technologies prioritizes first designing out plastics and waste from new products and then maximizing recycled plastics before turning to virgin bio-based materials, said Nick Abbatiello, senior distinguished engineer at Dell, during the Circularity 21 session.

Certain materials, such as clear plastics for consumer technologies, require a level of quality that recycled content is not yet able to meet, described Abbatiello, so that is where Dell and others turn to bio-based materials to meet those needs. 

To ensure that bioeconomy systems are truly regenerative means thinking about the methods of production, as well as the products themselves.

At Dell, this means bringing its supply chain along by using bio-based materials that act as one-to-one replacements for existing polymers and can be created with existing manufacturing processes. This strategy has avoided the need to build completely new industrial facilities for a novel material while supporting six of their suppliers on the journey towards making bio-based polymers. For Metabolic, a regenerative bioeconomy means moving toward distributed material production facilities to optimize extraction or waste reuse based on the unique conditions and resources of every ecosystem or urban area.

As Corbin described, "Nature constructs itself using a common set of nutrients. When something dies or is no longer needed, [it is] able to break down into common building blocks back into the system. That should be the premise through which we design our own bioeconomy."

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